Ask the Dentist: Study finds tooth decay is not down to genetic factors

Lucy Stock, dentist at Gentle Dental Care in Belfast, says environmental, not genetic factors, seem to be the prime cause of cavities

Genetic make-up does not seem to predispose people to tooth decay but children with overweight mothers are more likely to have cavities, the study found
Lucy Stock

THIS time you can’t blame it on your genes. A new Australian study has found that genetic make-up does not predispose people to tooth decay; however, the research did find that children with overweight mothers are more likely to have cavities.

Lead researcher Dr Mihiri Silva, from the Murdoch Children's Research Institute, said the study looked at the teeth of 173 sets of twins (identical and non-identical) from pregnancy through to six years of age.

"We found that identical twins, with identical genomes, have varying degrees of decay. This means that environmental factors, like a lack of fluoride in water, seem to be the prime cause of cavities, not genetic make-up," she said.

However, Dr Silva said the research did find a link between the mother's health and lifestyle during pregnancy and the child's future dental health, with obesity in pregnancy a definite marker for increased risk of child tooth decay.

"The relationship between maternal obesity and child tooth decay is complex," Dr Silva said. "Perhaps the mother's weight has a biological influence on the developing foetus or perhaps the risk of decay rises because of increased sugar consumption in that household."

One in three of the twins studied had dental decay and almost one in four had advanced decay. Dr Silva said it was important that people don't think of tooth decay as genetic.

"If people think the health of their teeth is down to their genetic make-up, they may not be prepared to make important lifestyle changes," she said.

Dr Silva said tooth decay was a serious health problem, because there was a clear link between child cavities and developing diabetes and cardiovascular disease later in life.

On the upside, this does mean that you can take control and help your children to have better teeth and not just believe that they must be resigned to a lifetime of teeth breaking, needing fillings and painful teeth.

It’s the frequency and not the amount of sugar that’s the problem for teeth. Reducing how often children have sugary things will help them maintain strong teeth. Even the simple act of replacing diluting juice with plain water allows teeth to stay hard. For the strong of heart, you can even go as far as throwing out the biscuit tin to reduce the temptation of snacking on junk.

Try introducing weekend-only sweet treats to control their sugar intake. Having a clear house rule on sweets also reduces the arguments about getting them.

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