Decayed teeth, toothaches and tooth loss-lifestyle or genes?

Why do some people suffer more tooth decay than others?

Unlucky perhaps, but when it comes to teeth breaking down lady luck plays no part in this condition. We may want to reconsider blaming genes for dental decay. A recent study conducted by a team at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) has shown for the first time that genes and the environment affect the type of bacteria growing in our mouths. The type of bacteria in our mouths can affect our oral health.

Dental decay occurs over time due to acid build up on the tooth surface after meals. The bacteria in our mouths process the sugars from our diet and turn them into acid. Some bacteria are more efficient at processing these sugars than others. These bad bacteria also flourish in an acidic environment. Teeth exposed to acid frequently develop cavities eventually.

The MCRI study show the type of bacteria in the mouth can be inherited from our parents. However the type of bacteria inherited are not the type which are associated with dental decay. Furthermore, the inherited bacteria decrease as we age. The environment or lifestyle plays a stronger role as we get older. This study shows that with high sugar consumption the good bacteria protecting our teeth reduce in number. Leaving the bad bugs to bite!

How do we prevent dental decay?

Top on the list is reduce the frequency of sugar consumption. Occasional treats are definitely okay but making sweet treats regular is a sure way to dental rot.

Figure 1 showing significant dental cavities in a child.

Brushing your teeth twice a day with fluoridated toothpaste is a must. This keeps the plaque build up on the teeth low and also encourages good bacterial growth.

Drinking fluoridated water is important. This ensures the mouth is exposed to low levels of fluoride all the time. Fluoride makes teeth more resistant to acid challenges. Remaining hydrated also maintains healthy saliva quality and quantity. Saliva is important to neutralise acid in the mouth and keep bacterial growth to a minimum.

Avoid eating before bedtime especially sweet, sticky foods.

Why do we experience toothaches?

Toothaches result from bacteria invading the tooth through a crack or cavity in the tooth. The extent of damage to the tooth dictates if the treatment is simple or complicated.

Figure 2. This diagram shows a picture of a tooth in cross section. One half shows an abcess at the tip of the root and the other half shows the pulp inflammed due to the presence of bacteria. Courtesy of Dr Noel Garza.

Aching teeth are not a result of genes. Toothaches result from disease left untreated for extended periods. Early detection and intervention of diseaseĀ is key to a pain free tooth.

Regular dental examination by a dental professional is important.

Is tooth loss a by product of our genes?

Tooth loss can be a result of many causes. Trauma from accidents, gum disease, cracked or fractured teeth from bruxing, broken down teeth from acid erosion or dental decay are some of the more common causes of tooth loss.

Figure 3 showing teeth affected by acid erosion.

Some conditions can be inherited like periodontal disease. But even this condition needs lifestyle factors to increase the risk of the disease occurring. For instance, smoking and poor oral hygiene. Inherited genes can predispose an individual to disease but will not guarantee the disease.

Figure 4 shows a mouth with significant gum disease.

Teeth left to rot and eventually cause pain or break down is not genetically determined. These teeth will break when the structural integrity is weakened to a point of no return.

Tooth loss is usually a result of lifestyle choices. Teeth break down from many causes and mostly from our neglect to care for our teeth.

Rare genetic conditions leading to weak teeth, which are inherited, affects the development of the teeth. These conditions lead to poorly formed teeth which are very brittle and will breakdown quickly once in the mouth. Such conditions like amelogenesis imperfecta and dentinogenesis imperfecta are very rare. These individuals are born with such conditions.


Roland Chong

Roland has over 20 years experience as a general dentist. Roland does all aspects of general dentistry with a special interest in prosthodontics (crown and bridge work) and cosmetic dentistry. A member of the International Team of Implantology, Roland is constantly developing his skills by collaborating with international experts.