How many of us have found ourselves in the dentist’s chair, mouths propped open to the point of splitting, and endured a lecture on the importance of flossing – while completely unable to respond thanks to the small armory of hardware in between our teeth? The next time you find yourself in such a situation, you can wait until the dentist pries the last piece of plaque out from behind your molars before telling him: “I can’t help it, Doc, it’s in my genes!”
Genetics and dentistry have rarely mixed much in the past, but a statement issued by the National Institutes of Health more than a decade ago sent researchers down the path of investigating how what’s in our DNA can affect what happens in our mouths. Recent studies have shown that about 60% of a person’s tendency toward tooth decay has a genetic basis – or at least a genetic component.
For one thing, our genes affect the types of food we seek out. Some people have a much stronger craving for sugary foods than others do: and the more sugar that goes into your mouth, the higher your chances of developing a cavity.
People who like a wider variety of food flavors also seem to come out ahead on the tooth decay front, possibly because their wider range of flavor interest leads them to sometimes choose less dentally dangerous foods over the sugary variety: people who enjoy a lot of different foods are more likely to spend most of their calories focused in the “sugars and fats” corner of the food pyramid, which means less tooth exposure to sugar. So if you’re the kind of person who can easily take a pass on dessert, or who has been known to say, “Pass the kale and cilantro, please,” you may find that your trips to the dentist just don’t take as long as your friends’ do.
Another genetic factor is how hospitable your mouth is to certain kinds of microorganisms. We all know that sugar consumption is correlated with tooth decay, but you might not realize that the sugar can act as a food for harmful bacteria whose waste products contribute to tooth erosion. Some bacteria, though, are friendly instead – certain types will actually destroy the tooth-eating kinds, and some others just take up space on your teeth to keep the microbiological bad guys from living there. Your mouth’s chemistry determines whether the helpful bacteria or the harmful ones will have an easier time surviving – and your mouth’s chemistry is largely affected by your genes.
So does this mean you can start skipping out on your twice-a-day brushing and flossing routine? Not at all – for one thing, proper oral hygiene and care still makes up almost half of the contributing factors toward tooth decay. For another, gum disease, thrush, tonsillitis, and of course the all important issue of bad breath are all unrelated to tooth decay – if you give up your oral health routine in the hopes that your good genes will save you from rotten teeth, you’re also signing yourself up for bleeding gums and a serious case of halitosis.
In fact, for those of us not gifted with good genes on the tooth decay front, solid oral care may be even more important to help overcome the deficiencies in our DNA. But besides brushing and flossing, what else can you do to protect yourself from tooth decay? One major factor is getting fluoride in your diet: mainly from tap water, if you’re on a city water system. Another issue is what you eat and drink: sure, your genes may make you predisposed to downing sweet treats, but fortunately biology isn’t destiny.
To protect your teeth, you can choose to graze on salads and carrots instead of syrup and cakes. If soft drinks and potato chips are your groove, this may make you cringe, but avoiding sugary sodas and starchy snacks that linger in the mouth are a major factor. Brushing right after eating can help eliminate any dawdling food particles, and even chewing gum (of the sugar-free variety, of course!) can help to clean your mouth of your last meal.
And last but not least, don’t forget to keep flossing, or you’ll have a lot to answer for through that mouthful of metal at your next dentist appointment.