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Rural Health Information Hub

Population Considerations for Rural Oral Health Programs

It is important for rural programs providing oral health services to consider the unique characteristics of the population being served. Specific populations may require different approaches or strategies for delivering oral health services. Some rural oral health programs have conducted community health needs assessments to identify their priority populations.

For more information about how social determinants of health (SDOH) impact populations with unique needs, see the SDOH in Rural Communities Toolkit.

Older Adults

Rural America's population has a larger proportion of adults over the age of 65 than the nation as a whole. Older adults are less likely to have insurance coverage that includes access to dental services, and traditional Medicare does not cover routine dental care. As people age, their overall health tends to decline and their level of physical functioning decreases. Chronic conditions like diabetes or heart disease can worsen oral health and vice versa. Additionally, conditions associated with aging, like arthritis or cognitive impairment, can make oral hygiene difficult. Despite improvements in recent decades, tooth decay remains the most prevalent chronic disease among older adults and approximately 1 in 6 adults aged 65 or older have no teeth.


Tooth decay is one of the most common chronic diseases among children. A 2021 study, The Oral Health Status of America's Rural Children: An Opportunity for Policy Change, found that rural children were less likely than urban children to have received a fluoride treatment (46.6% versus 52.5%) and less likely to have received a dental sealant (19.5% versus 22.5%).

Tooth decay can have serious and negative impacts on a child's overall health and wellbeing, including problems eating, speaking, and learning. Untreated tooth decay may make it harder for children to eat nutritious foods and may cause children to miss more days of school and receive lower grades than children who have access to dental services.

Tribal Populations

The 2015 Indian Health Survey found that twice as many American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) adults have untreated tooth decay compared to the general population. AI/AN adults are more likely to have severe gum disease and missing teeth compared to the general population.

Despite significant declines in tooth decay among young AI/AN children, tooth decay remains the most common health problem among AI/AN children ages five and younger. AI/AN children ages 0-5 years have the highest level of tooth decay among all other population groups in the United States — almost four times higher than White, non-Hispanic children. AI/AN children ages 6-9 also have higher rates of untreated tooth decay compared to children of other racial/ethnic populations.

Pregnant People

Pregnant people are susceptible to a range of oral health conditions including cavities, gum disease, and gingivitis. Changing hormone levels during pregnancy can directly impact gum health in pregnant people. It is important that pregnant people receive adequate nutrition, healthcare, and dental exams and cleanings during pregnancy to avoid oral diseases.

For more information about maternal health, see RHIhub's Rural Maternal Health Toolkit.

People with Developmental Disabilities

Developmental disabilities typically develop during childhood and last throughout a person's lifetime. Developmental disabilities impact all racial and ethnic groups and people at all income levels. Common disabilities include: autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorders, blindness or vision impairment, hearing loss, cerebral palsy, and intellectual disabilities.

People with developmental disabilities experience more dental disease than those without disabilities. They also face barriers accessing appropriate care. They may need additional accommodations to attend appointments or face challenges related to daily oral hygiene. People with intellectual and developmental disabilities may depend on a caregiver's help to access appointments, assist with oral hygiene, and manage their care coordination. Providers should be aware of any additional accommodations that may be needed so they can create an accessible environment for all patients.

People with Substance Use Disorders

Alcohol, methamphetamine, and opioid use disorders are more prevalent in rural locations compared to urban areas. Oral health problems vary by substance used. Methamphetamines and opioids can cause dry mouth and a reduction in saliva production, in turn causing gum disease and tooth decay. The use of methamphetamines can induce tooth grinding and clenching, causing damage to teeth and facial pain. Drug use can also lead to poor oral hygiene and poor nutritional habits, which contribute to additional oral health problems. Long-term use of alcohol predisposes individuals to gum disease and oropharyngeal cancers.

For in-depth information on rural substance use disorders as well as the treatment of opioid use disorder, see the Prevention & Treatment of Substance Use Disorders in Rural Communities Toolkit and the Rural Medication for Opioid Use Disorder Toolkit.

People Who Use Tobacco

Nationwide, rural residence is associated with higher rates of smoking and other tobacco use. Cigarettes and other forms of tobacco can cause gum disease, oral cancer, and other oral health problems. Among adults aged 20-64 who smoke cigarettes, more than 40% have untreated tooth decay. Among adults aged 65 and older who smoke cigarettes, about 43% have lost all of their teeth.

Dental professionals may consider using culturally sensitive cessation strategies, including motivational interviewing in their clinic to assist patients with quitting tobacco use.

For more information about tobacco use in rural communities, see the Rural Tobacco Control and Prevention Toolkit.

People with Lower Incomes

In the United States, about 40% of adults with lower incomes or without health insurance have untreated tooth decay. Adults with lower incomes or who are uninsured are one to four times more likely to have untreated tooth decay than those with higher incomes or private insurance. Children from households with lower incomes are about twice as likely to have untreated cavities in both their primary and permanent teeth and are less likely to receive dental sealants than are children from households with higher incomes.

People with lower incomes face challenges related to accessing oral healthcare. Individuals may need to take time off from work or school to visit the dentist, may have difficulty finding transportation to dental care, and may not have the resources like time and money for a dental visit. Rural employers are less likely to offer dental insurance to employees. Even when patients are eligible for Medicaid, it can be difficult to find providers who accept Medicaid.

People from Some Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups

Approximately twice as many African American adults and Hispanic/Latino adults have untreated tooth decay compared to White adults. Among young children (aged 2 to 5 years), 33% of Hispanic or Latino children and 28% of African American children have had cavities in their primary teeth, compared with 18% of White children. Among adolescents aged 12 to 19 years, approximately 70% of Hispanic or Latino children have had cavities in their permanent teeth, compared with 54% of White children.

For additional information related to considerations for people from racial and ethnic minority groups, see the Implementation Considerations for Social Determinants of Health (SDOH) Programs Serving Racial and Ethnic Minority Populations and Tribal Communities in the SDOH Toolkit.

Resources to Learn More

Best Practice Approaches
A collection of evidence-based public health strategies for state, territorial, and community dental programs supporting program planning, development, implementation, and evaluation. Relevant topics include oral healthcare for people with special needs, perinatal oral health, and oral health for older adults.
Organization(s): Association of State and Territorial Dental Directors (ASTDD)

Tobacco Use and Cessation
Collection of well-documented information and data about the impact of tobacco and nicotine on oral health and proven methods of treating tobacco dependence.
Organization(s): American Dental Association (ADA)

Tribal Oral Health Initiative
Offers resources and publications relative to the Tribal Oral Health Initiative with a focus on dental therapy. Provides several reports with data derived from the analysis of Indian Health Service (IHS) Oral Health Surveys.
Organization(s): National Indian Health Board (NIHB)