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Ade Adeniji's orthodontist says he needs braces. It's not for cosmetic reasons; Ade is a handsome 16-year-old in New York City with a warm, engaging smile. Nor is it for health reasons; his teeth aren't giving him any trouble.

It's because his lower teeth are crowded, making it difficult to clean between them. Ade's parents have left the decision about whether to get braces up to Ade and, so far, he isn't interested. His parent's hands-off approach isn't reckless--they just realize that no matter what decision he makes, he'll be fine. Even with the crowded teeth, he's never had a cavity.

Other children and young adults could make similar decisions to wait. According to the National Institutes of Health, most misaligned bites (technically known as malocclusions) are so minor that they do not require treatment. Yet, currently, nearly 4 million children under the age of 18 in the U.S. and Canada are wearing some kind of braces. Their parents are paying anywhere from $3,000 for a basic set to upwards of $10,000 for newer "invisible" braces.

How many of those sets of braces are truly necessary? No one's really sure. But Timothy Wheeler, D.M.D., Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Orthodontics at the University of Florida, is trying to find out. He's in the midst of long-term research, funded by the National Institutes of Health, on the timing of orthodontic intervention.


 
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