Are Oral Health Issues Genetic? Can You Blame Parents for Bad Teeth?
To a certain degree, almost every aspect of your health is affected by your genes. But are bad teeth hereditary? Are your mom and dad really to blame for that cavity or your misaligned teeth?
I don’t have a simple answer. Few reliable studies exist on the topic since scientists would need extremely large numbers to draw conclusions with high confidence. Even so, most researchers believe genetics can play a part in certain dental health issues. Here’s what we know.
Over 90% of people will develop a cavity at some point. While your unique genetic makeup does affect your risk factors for tooth decay, it’s not considered the main factor.
Your diet and the way you care for your teeth is closely tied to your risk of tooth decay. Things like plaque buildup, too many sugary or acidic snacks, and improper dental hygiene are more likely to blame.
That said, everyone’s mouth has a different population of bacteria — and this bacteria is typically passed from primary caregivers (typically parents) to their children during childhood. And some types of bacteria are more aggressive in causing cavities than others. Studies have found certain variations of the gene beta-defensin 1 (DEFB1) to be linked to a greater risk of cavities in permanent teeth.
Some people inherit a more acidic natural environment in their body and their mouth. Cavity-causing bacteria thrive in an acidic environment, which means these folks can expect more cavities in their lifetime if they have high levels of cavity-causing bacteria in their mouths as well.
Even with these biological factors at play, good dental hygiene habits can help you overcome the risk and prevent tooth decay.
Studies do suggest that gum disease can be influenced by heredity.
Up to 30% of people have some genetic susceptibility to gum disease. Another study notes that genetic factors may play a critical role in about half of periodontal disease cases. And the American Academy of Periodontology (AAP) says gum disease can be more severe in those whose cells produce cytokine, another genetic factor.
So what does this mean for you? Ask your family members if they’ve ever been diagnosed or noticed signs of gum disease and tell your dentist if you have a family history of the issue.
Whether or not someone in your family has suffered from gum disease, you should always take steps to lower your risk. Good brushing and flossing habits are key. Your dentist will also help you take control of your gum health with preventive cleanings. If you’re starting to develop the disease, your dentist can provide periodontal therapy (called scaling and root planing) to stop it in its tracks.
While coffee, tea, and medications can cause stains, the number one reason people experience yellow-looking teeth is genetics. Dentinogenesis imperfecta and amelogenesis imperfecta are inherited both disorders that can lead to yellow discoloration.
Some people are simply born with thin or more translucent enamel, which allows the true color of your naturally yellow-colored dentin to show through. As you age, the outer layer of your enamel will thin even further, making your teeth appear more yellow.
Your genetics could also have the opposite effect — giving you thicker enamel and thus whiter, brighter-looking teeth!
If you’re naturally disposed toward thin enamel and yellow-looking teeth, your dentist can help. They can provide professional cleanings and tooth whitening treatments to bring back the shine in your smile.
The positioning of your teeth depends on:
Number of teeth
Size of teeth and jaw
Balancing forces between your tongue and lips
Many of these factors have a genetic origin. So in this way, your crooked teeth may be influenced by your genetics.
Other things, like a habit of thrusting your tongue forward against your teeth or sucking your thumb can also influence the arrangement of your teeth. Though mainly environmentally-driven, these factors also have a genetic component undertone.
Chips and Breaks
It’s true — some people are born with brittle and fragile teeth. And often, this issue stems from your family history.
You may have a genetic predisposition toward more fragile teeth. Certain genetic disorders can also affect the layer underneath your enamel (called the dentin). All of these things will make you much more susceptible to chips, cracks, and breaks.
However a chipped tooth doesn’t immediately signal you have a family history of weak teeth. Anyone can suffer from a chip or break. Often, this damage comes from habits like teeth grinding, large fillings, biting down on a hard piece of food, or even a blow to the mouth.
There’s no proven way to prevent any cancer, including oral cancer. However, there are several risk factors that increase your chance of developing oral cancer, including:
Being male (sorry guys!)
Long-term, unprotected sun exposure
HPV, or human papilloma virus, is a major cause of oral cancer these days (as well as cervical cancer). Though HPV does not run in families, the virus is passed between people, and most of us will be exposed to at least one strain of HPV (if not several strains) in our lifetime. Some strains carry a high risk of developing cancer, and some do not. The HPV vaccine is effective at preventing infection by high cancer-risk strains. The vaccine is recommended for boys and girls before the age of sexual activity — around age 10 or so.
Additionally, like other types of cancers, some inherited genetic mutations carry a higher risk of oral cancer. These include:
Fanconi anemia — A blood condition caused by inherited abnormalities in various genes. The risk of developing oral cancer among people with this condition is 500 times higher than the general public.
Dyskeratosis congenita — Another genetically-linked syndrome that carries a high risk of oral cancer.
If oral cancer is present in your family history, tell your dentist. They may recommend more frequent screenings, lifestyle changes like avoiding all tobacco products, and target prevention efforts.
Certain environmental factors and family health habits can also play a part in your oral health. Though not caused by genetics, you may adopt poor habits from your family that can hurt your teeth and gums. Things like poor brushing habits, eating too many sugary foods, not visiting the dentist, and smoking can all hurt your health.
Taking Responsibility for your Dental Health
Yes, dental health issues can run in the family — it could be a genetic trait or maybe you’ve just learned bad dental health habits from your family. Either way, your family history doesn’t mean you’re stuck with problematic teeth.
Good oral hygiene habits are key. And by working closely together with your dentist, you can catch early signs of dental health issues and be proactive about keeping your teeth healthy. Even if you’re already dealing with a problem, there’s hope. Advancements in dentistry make it easier than in years past to ensure your oral health is the best it can be.
Despite any genetic predispositions, what matters now is that you take control of your dental health and aim for a better future.
How can I help?
My team and I specialize in providing individualized care to meet the specific needs of our patients. We’ll take your family health history into consideration as well as your unique qualities to provide the best care.
If you have concerns about your family’s dental health history or want to learn more about genetic dental health, contact us and let’s talk.