According to a study by Richard Heyman, PhD (pictured), and Amy Smith Slep, PhD, psychologists at the New York University College of Dentistry (NYUCD), there is a connection between mental health and dental health.
Mark Wolff, DDS, PhD, professor and chair of the NYUCD Department of Cariology and Comprehensive Care and associate dean for predoctoral clinical education, said, “There is a major change happening in our beliefs about the impact of psychological factors on both patient behaviors and on the biology of oral health.  We need to ask how psychological events relate to tooth decay. For example, when we ask why someone doesn’t brush, we need to think about whether he or she suffers from depression.”
Heyman and Slep’s study looked at whether conflict between couples was affecting their research subjects’ oral health. The team collected data on nearly 150 families, taking blood and saliva samples, conducting physical exams, and administering questionnaires. The researchers found that the more verbal or physical aggression that occurred between parents, the more oral health problems occurred in their children.

“There are two hypotheses about how oral health is affected by parental discord,” Heyman said.  “First, lax supervision of children, as an outgrowth of discord, directly impacts children eating sugary cereals and beverages, and not brushing. The second is a biological response. There is strong research showing that family conflict and stress affect the immune system.”

Wolff added, “Allowing children to eat sugary food is something seen even among well-educated people. We have to understand the psychological causation of tooth decay to prevent it. A simple lecture on brushing isn’t going to improve things. You have to change parenting behaviors.”
Now, Heyman’s and Slep’s group, together with Wolff and NYUCD’s Ananda Dasanayake, professor of epidemiology and health promotion, are turning their findings into action, developing an intervention for couples where discord may impact the oral health of their very young children.
“The birth of a new baby is a good time to intervene with families, because past research has shown that’s when they are most open to changes in their couple relationship,” Heyman says.

The aim of the intervention is to lower risk factors and get messages out on good preventive health care. The intervention was developed in Australia and is currently being tested by the team. The researchers are seeking families whose newborn children are already considered at high risk for poor oral health due to low family incomes, parents who have no more than a high school education, and at least one non-European-American parent. Couples who participate will watch DVD segments on conflict resolution and healthy parenting. They also will be assigned a coach, who will check in and help them improve their conflict-resolution and parenting skills. And they will complete a workbook that reinforces those messages with exercises.

The couples’ intervention takes place over eight sessions, timed to intersect with the developmental stages of their infant, from 3 to 12 months. This covers the period of tooth eruption and the transition to recommended dental visits. To examine the impact on oral health, dental exams will be performed on the children at 15 months.