When we talk about people’s traits we usually defer to their parents. We say, she has her father’s dark sense of humor or she’s got her mother’s good looks. Today, we might also say she also has her parents’ predisposition to tooth decay. There has been a lively debate for the last several years about the extent to which we can actually intervene to improve our own dental health. We can’t deny that dental practices have improved along with overall oral health. Just a century ago, before dental practices matured, nearly everyone of a certain age ended up with dentures. Since people have been practicing the pillars of dental care–brushing, flossing, and cleanings–oral health has improved markedly.
What do we inherit?
While we can’t place all the blame on our genetics, there are many facets of oral health that are just simply out of our control. Genetic dentistry is still in its infancy, but scientists in this field have already identified several ways in which our genes determine part of our dental hygiene. Here are the main factors:
- There’s actually a “sweet-tooth” gene! Your proclivity for that midnight raid of the cookie jar may be inherited. Suffice it to say, if you have this gene variant you are more prone to tooth decay
- Maybe she’s born with it and maybe it’s tooth enamel. We’ve been talking about this one for a much longer period: when people have softer enamel bacteria have an easier time burrowing into the tooth, causing cavities.
- Most of us know someone who hates broccoli. Like can’t stand it. This is more than just a learned aversion, scientists say. There are certain variants on taste receptor genes that make us predisposed to hate certain foods and love others. While they’re still finding out about this, it seems that if you have a more varied flavor profile, you’re less likely to settle for sugary foods.
- Some people produce more saliva. Others produce stronger saliva. Those who produce more saliva have more resources for washing away plaque and particles that build around the teeth. Those who have gene variants that produce stronger saliva are more apt to properly metabolize elements like calcium and potassium, which lead to healthier teeth.
- This one sounds like the name of a thriller dime-store novel. What it refers to is the communities of bacteria on your tongue, the alveolar ridge, and the surface of the teeth. The way your body responds to these little cities of microbes (gross, I know) can affect your risk of tooth decay.
What can we change?
If genetic dentists are right, 40% of the causes of tooth decay are attributable to environment. While some of these environmental factors, like our socioeconomic class, neighborhood, education, or childhood diet are not something we could choose, we are not let off the hook. If we devote ourselves to the pillars of good oral health and cut back on the sugary drinks, we can give ourselves the best shot at preventing and reversing tooth decay.