Nearly a fifth of Olympic athletes at the London 2012 games say poor oral health affected their training and performance.

In a survey by British researchers, nearly half of athletes also reported serious dental problems, including 45 percent with dental erosion, with 40 percent of athletes saying their oral health “bothered” them. More than a quarter of 302 athletes from 25 sports, hailing from Europe, Africa, and Asia, reported that poor oral health negatively affected their quality of life. Nearly half of those surveyed said they had not seen a dental hygienist or dentist during the previous year.

Researchers at University College, London say cavities, tooth erosion, and periodontal disease were common among the young athletes at the games. "Our data and other studies suggest that, for a similar age profile, the oral health of athletes is poor. It's quite striking," lead researcher Ian Needleman told the BBC.

Although typifying excellent health, many elite athletes may compromise their oral health by regularly consuming large amounts of carbohydrates, including sugar-laden energy drinks, which damage teeth. Intense training, too, may stress the immune system to leave the body susceptible to dental disease. Moreover, an overriding focus on training for the Olympic games also causes many elite athletes to neglect their dental health, Needleman said.

Needleman and his colleagues conducted the study by staffing a free dental clinic at the games, providing athletes with free dental check-ups and mouth guards.

Although oral health may seem less consequential than other problems, Needleman and other experts point to research implicating dental problems in other health ailments, notably heart problems. People who fail to brush their teeth twice daily run a higher risk of heart attack, among other correlations.

Needleman, who serves as director of the International Centre for Evidence-Based Oral Health, said athletes should take dental health seriously. "We know the differences at the high end of elite sport are small, it would not be surprising if oral health was having an impact on those differences,” he told the BBC. "Many sports medics have anecdotes about athletes missing medals at major competitions as a result of oral health problems."

To hit optimum athletic performance, the researchers said athletes should consider oral hygiene as part of their overall training regimen, albeit a smaller focus.

Source: Needleman, I., Ashley, P., Petrie, A., Fortune, F., Turner, W., et al. Oral Health And Impact On Performance Of Athletes Participating In The London 2012 Olympic Games: A Cross-Sectional Study. British Journal Of Sports Medicine. 2013.