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Why do men struggle with oral health?

May 31, 2022
A recent study showed that men have poorer oral health habits than women. Why is that, and what can health-care providers do about it?
Amelia Williamson DeStefano, Group Editorial Director

A recent study in the Journal of Dentistry found that men practice poorer oral habits, get fewer preventive visits, and just generally have worse oral health than women.

Past studies have found that women “exhibit better oral health literacy and more positive attitudes about dental visits than men,” and were more likely to perceive oral health as being connected to their overall quality of life.

Males, meanwhile, “tended to have fewer dental visits, worse perception of their gum and tooth health, poorer flossing habits, and more root caries.”

And it isn’t just oral health where men struggle. A 2019 Harvard Medical School article detailed the “gender gap in health” and its many negative consequences.

About the study

The study was the first to use a national US database “to explore oral health and hygiene behaviors” by sex. The authors acknowledged that illness is associated with “a loss of masculinity” and that some men find help-seeking behavior challenging. The authors also found that differences between oral health behaviors remained even after controlling for other demographic factors.

The Journal of Dentistry study also found that men were more likely to require emergency care, while women were more likely to visit for preventive care or planned treatments.

What you can do

Because dental professionals have fewer opportunities for contact with male patients, each visit should be viewed as an opportunity to share oral health knowledge and provide oral hygiene instruction, even if it seems basic.

Although individual patients must choose on their own when and how to seek care, health-care providers’ behaviors also impact the quality of the information patients receive.

“Health-care providers typically do not spend as much time with men discussing health issues and as a result, may provide us with less health information and advice,” wrote the study authors. “Since men visit the dentist less, this highlights the importance for dentists to view each visit as a teachable opportunity to promote positive oral health behaviors and improve a patient’s knowledge about oral health.” The study also found that though men were told more often about oral cancer in women, they were actually screened less.

Dr. David Rice, DentistryIQ chief editor, says social expectations can be powerful when it comes to how men care—or don’t care—for themselves.

“(For) one, as the saying goes, if it’s not broke… Two, if no one tells me I have a problem, then I must not have a problem. Three, somewhere along the line many men learned a poor lesson. Men don’t get sick,” says Dr. Rice.

“Many men want to appear healthy and strong even when they’re not. We want to appear in control. That often translates to staying clear out of fear.”

But as a practicing hygienist, Jackie Sanders, MBA, RDH, chief editor of RDH (sister site of DentistryIQ), found that many men were eager to learn once these barriers were overcome. “The dental professional may be the first to explain the link between oral health and their body as a whole,” she says.

Health-care providers can’t necessarily rewrite their patients’ understanding of masculinity, but you can start by making sure you take advantage of your time with the patient, and above all, offer empathy and understanding for a person who may be feeling confused and vulnerable.

Access the Journal of Dentistry study: Comparing oral health behaviours of men and women in the United States