In your face, Simpsons: English people don’t have terrible teeth compared with Americans after all, according to a new study. Yes, scientists have finally compared the oral health of citizens from England and the U.S. and concluded that, contrary to stereotypes, contemporary literature, and popular TV shows, it’s no better in the latter.
“There has been this long-standing popular belief that people in the U.S. have much better teeth than the English,” lead researcher Professor Richard Watt from University College London told IFLScience. “But when we actually started looking into this, we found that next to no research had been conducted previously to support this.”
So where did this myth begin? It’s unclear, although Watt says there were American adverts produced during the First World War that made jokes about the teeth of the British, so it goes back at least 100 years. Cartoon connoisseurs will also probably be all too aware of the ghastly teeth drawn onto English characters in modern shows such as the Simpsons and Family Guy, and there are even references to our supposed gross gnashers in some contemporary literature.
Regardless of its roots, pun intended, Watt wanted to put some evidence behind the claim, so in collaboration with researchers from the U.S. and Colombia, a large dataset on teeth was collected and analyzed. The analysis was based on two national surveys, one from the U.S. and one from England, which are conducted every 10 years. These collect information on people’s oral health, with clinical information gathered by dentists, and general feelings about their mouths. People’s perceptions of their teeth were measured using questionnaires specifically developed for this purpose.
Perhaps pearly whites are more common in England than believed. Image credit: luminaimages/Shutterstock
The team was also interested in how oral health might reflect educational and income disparities, so socioeconomic data such as educational attainment was also gathered. Because some adults are still studying at the age of 25, only adults above this age were counted. All in all, data from thousands of adults was included.
Reported in the BMJ as part of their Christmas special, the team found that the oral health of Americans was no better than that of the English, but some differences were apparent. For instance, Americans were missing more teeth, but the English had more oral impacts. Furthermore, discrepancies in terms of equality were also evident.
“When we looked at clinical health, there wasn’t much of a difference between the two populations,” said Watt. “But our main finding was that the U.S. had much higher levels of inequality than in the U.K., which would ultimately reflect in people’s oral health.” In the U.S., for example, most dentistry is private, but in the U.K. the NHS provides many free services.
But this study is about more than just teeth: Watt’s group is interested in inequality on a broader scale, for which the mouth is a good marker. Of course, causes of inequality in terms of general health are similar to those for oral health, but the mouth is slightly easier to measure than the rest of the body as a whole.
“Ours is the first proper study looking into this subject,” Watt said, “it really does cast doubt on different images we have from Hollywood, books, and images that potentiate this myth.”