A study of athletes who participated in the London 2012 Olympic Games, has higher levels of gum disease and tooth decay than other people of the same age.
A fifth of athletes surveyed said they believed that their oral health may be damaging their training and performance.
The study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, suggested cavities, tooth erosion and gum disease were common and as a group, had worse dental health than other people of a similar age.
The dentists, at University College London, who carried out the research blamed the athletes diet, including high levels of carbohydrates and acidic energy drinks.
Lead researcher, Professor Ian Needleman said:”Our data and other studies suggest that, for a similar age profile, the oral health of athletes is poor. It’s quite striking,” said lead researcher Prof Ian Needleman.
He said eating large amounts of carbohydrates regularly, including sugary energy drinks, was damaging teeth.
He added that the stress on the immune system from intense training may leave athletes at risk of oral disease and that a fixation on training, preparation and other aspects of health may leave little time or awareness of oral health.
The study looked at those visiting the dental clinic at the Games, which offered free check-ups and mouth guards. Competitors using the clinic may have been more likely to have dental problems than other athletes, but the research group say their findings are consistent with previous studies.
Of the 302 athletes examined, from 25 sports, 55% had evidence of cavities, 45% had tooth erosion and 76% had gum disease. One in three said their oral health affected their quality of life and one in five said it affected training or athletic performance.
Oral health is already a suspect in other seemingly unrelated conditions such as heart disease. People who do not brush twice a day are at higher risk of a heart attack and inflammation is common to both.
The researchers suggest inflammation elsewhere in the body may also affect recovery time and susceptibility to injury. They added that tooth pain and the resulting impact on diet and sleep may also damage performance.
Prof Needleman, who is also director of the International Centre for Evidence-Based Oral Health, added: “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.
“Many sports medics have anecdotes about athletes missing medals at major competitions as a result of oral health problems.”