Yesterday, new NHANES 2009-2012 data on prevalence, extent and severity of periodontitis have gone online in the Journal of Periodontology. On first sight, authors confirm findings of the previous, 2009-2010, survey in that prevalence is much larger as previously reported. So, 46% of U.S. adults have periodontitis with almost 9% having severe disease (Eke et al. 2015). The previous report (Eke et al. 2012a) contained an unclear description of how attachment loss was measured concealing that a “signed” measure of recession was used to calculate clinical attachment loss as difference of probing pocket depth and recession (from Latin, recessus, retreat). In a letter to the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Dental Research, Professor Giannobile, I had raised more problems in the article when I wrote,
“Teaching in particular undergraduates about how probing parameters periodontal probing depth, attachment level, and recession are measured is quite an effort but usually straightforward. In order to avoid undue exaggeration of prevalence, extent and severity of periodontitis both in the population and in patients attending a common office and to be able to assess treatment outcomes, metric periodontal probing parameters have to be properly defined. I would therefore appreciate if authors could comment on the apparent redefinition of attachment loss in their paper. When analyzing the Figure in the paper by Eke et al. (2012a), what immediately hits the eye is that there seems to be higher prevalence of attachment loss at different thresholds (a) than of pocket depth at respective thresholds (b) in all age groups. Such a pattern may actually be a result of how attachment loss had erroneously been redefined, most probably due to convenience. Just as a trivial example, a 4 mm probing depth without recession may be associated with either 0, 1, 2, 3, or 4 mm attachment loss, but the NHANES oral health data management program would have “instantly calculated” 4 mm. Based on the new case definition using attachment loss in addition to probing depth, prevalence of all periodontitis in the adult population of 30 years and older in the U.S. has now been estimated to exceed 47%, after 35% found in NHANES III during 1988-1994. This much higher prevalence may be due to the redefinition of attachment loss, too. Moreover, as to Eke et al. (2012a), mild periodontitis has a rather low prevalence in all age groups while moderate periodontitis is widespread (Figure c). The picture was different in NHANES III when severe periodontitis occurred with lowest, moderate periodontitis with intermediate and mild periodontitis with highest prevalence, a pattern which, I suppose, applies to many other widespread chronic diseases. The strange new pattern might indeed be explained partly by the redefinition of attachment loss as well, ultimately leading to a different distribution of cases.” (Emphasis added.)
Subtracting recession from periodontal probing depth makes sense only when true recession (the free gingival margin is located apical to the cemento-enamel junction) gets a minus sign. This was circumstantially explained to me in an email by the authors forwarded to me by Professor Giannobile, who never published my original letter. Eke et al. (2012a) had actually concealed that a signed recession definition was used. In the new update of NHANES 2009-2012, calculation of clinical attachment is now correctly described, including the signed recession definition. Eke et al. (2015) may also have realized that there is no complex chronic disease where moderate severity is more prevalent than its mild form. It is rather perplexing to see that authors have now abandoned the differentiation between moderate and mild periodontitis which they call “other” periodontitis (other than severe). They give the following reason,
“These subgroups [mild and moderate periodontitis] are not truly ordinal [sic] as the label suggests because many ‘moderate’ cases had insufficient pocket depth to qualify as ‘mild’ and we have therefore combined them and used the label ‘other‘ periodontitis.”
I had been quite comfortable with teaching the results obtained in NHANES III (the population-based 3rd National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey the data of which had been collected between 1988 and 1994) for a long time. In a nutshell, for the adult, dentate (those with teeth) population of the United States Albandar and Kingman (1999) had reported that,
- gingival inflammation (as assessed by bleeding on probing) is widespread with increasing prevalence (at least one bleeding site) from 40-50% in 30 to 39-yr-olds to around 60% in 80-plus-yr-olds, as well as increasing extent (mean % teeth with gingival bleeding) from about 13 to 23%;
- likewise, calculus is widespread with prevalence in 90-95% of subjects and increasing, with age, extent from 40-50% to more than 60% teeth; and
- while males had significantly more gingival bleeding, more subgingival calculus and more teeth with either supra and subgingival calculus than females, non-hispanic blacks had the highest prevalence and extent of dental calculus.
When it comes to periodontitis, Albandar et al. (1999) observed that,
- at least 35% of the adult population were affected by the disease, but most cases (22%) were mild;
- moderate and advanced periodontitis affected not more than 13%;
- not surprisingly, prevalence and extent of attachment loss increased with age while in the oldest age group (80 yr and older), prevalence of deep pockets decreased because of tooth loss and recession; and,
- severe forms of the disease affected more men and more African Americans and Hispanics than Whites.