Does Your Genetic Make-Up Impact Your Dental Health?

Genetic makeup does not predispose people to tooth decay, however research does find that children with overweight mothers are more likely to have cavities. A new study - published in Pediatrics - estimates that one in three Australian children have tooth decay by the time they start school.

The study looked at the teeth of 173 sets of twins - identical and non-identical - from pregnancy through to six years of age. "How genetics impacts dental health has not often been studied," says lead researcher Dr. Mihiri Silva from the Murdoch Children's Research Institute. "This is the first twin study that looks at both genetics and early life risk factors, such as illness and lifestyle. We found that identical twins, with identical genomes, have varying degrees of decay. This means that environmental factors seem to be the prime cause of cavities not genetic makeup."

They found 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," Silva added. "Perhaps the mother's weight has a biological influence on the developing fetus or perhaps the risk of decay rises because of increased sugar consumption in that household."

Dental Decay Damage

The study collected data about twins at 24 and 36-weeks' gestational age, at birth, 18 months and six years of age. This included a dental examination at age six. Questionnaires about the mother's weight, illnesses, medication use, vitamin D levels, stress, alcohol intake and smoking were collected during pregnancy.

The findings revealed that one in three of the twins studied had dental decay. Almost one in four had advanced decay. It is 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," Silva continued. "Our findings also reinforce how important it is for pediatricians and other health professionals to educate children to start preventive measures early in life, prior to the onset of damage to dental tissues."

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. "Tooth decay is also the leading cause of preventable hospital stays for Australian children," she continued. According to 2011 Victorian (Australia) Department of Health statistics, more than 26,000 Australians under the age of 15 are admitted to hospital to treat tooth decay every year.

Dr. Katrina Scurrah from Twins Research Australia and the School of Population and Global Health at the University of Melbourne (Australia), said the study illustrated the advantages of studying twins to find out about health conditions and the importance of considering the effects of early life risk factors as well as genes. It's important to try to replicate these findings in other studies that follow children through to adulthood and to explore other risk factors for dental decay.

Can Dental Health Focus Keep Children From Becoming Overweight?

Dental health with children and parents about what is healthy and unhealthy for your teeth can be one way to prevent children from becoming overweight, according to a study on children's diet, BMI and well-being from Sahlgrenska Academy, Sweden. In one of her sub-studies, she reviewed eating behavior, BMI and dental health of 271 pre-school and primary school children in Sweden. The children's height, weight, and food intake over one day were compared with the prevalence of cariogenic microorganisms in saliva -- and the link was clear: The children who had higher amount of caries bacteria also had significantly higher BMI and worse eating habits.

They ate more frequently and consumed more foods rich in sugar. "Weight can be a sensitive subject, but if you talk about eating behaviors alongside dental health, you're looking at the issue from a different angle," says Louise Arvidsson, registered dietitian and Ph.D. student at the Institute of Medicine. "There is absolutely a possibility to catch these children and talk about food habits, specifically in Sweden where the dentists meets with them at an early age, but this needs a good level of collaboration between the general dentistry, the child health care and schools."

In a separate sub-study, Arvidsson confirmed that with good food comes increased self-esteem, better relationships with friends and fewer emotional problems. Children that to a higher extent followed general dietary recommendations such as wholegrain products, 400 to 500 grams of fruit and vegetables per day, fish two to three times a week and a low intake of sugar and saturated fat, reported better mental well-being. The effects were achieved regardless of socio-economic background, and regardless of the children's weight.

This research further showed that good self-esteem could be linked to the healthier eating habits, two years later. A healthy diet and mental well-being might therefore be considered to interact, in a positive spiral. "We know that adults with depression feel better if, in addition to other treatment, they also meet with a dietitian,” Arvidsson added. “The question is whether a healthy diet can also have an effect in young children. There has been a lot of focus on physical activity and mental health in children, but diet is an increasingly recognized aspect."

Arvidsson’s thesis is based on data from a large European study, Idefics - with the University of Gothenburg having primary responsibility for Sweden's participation – with an aim to document and prevent childhood obesity. In her thesis, she also highlighted what does not work in protecting children from becoming overweight. Children between the ages of two and 10 who were stopped from eating by their parents were generally overweight five or six years later. "It clearly doesn't work, stopping your child from eating too much, or putting them on a diet, as some people were convinced,” Arvidsson added. “You really have to look at other methods to control a child's eating habits. Are you offering carrots as snacks, or both carrots and biscuits? What you eat at home is a very important question, and that you yourself try to make healthy choices. Children do as we do, not as we say."

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