Did our ancestors struggle with gum disease and gingivitis as some of us do today? Did these same conditions even exist thousands of years ago? Can studying our ancestors and their oral health help scientists eradicate modern diseases like chronic gum disease and diabetes? Do our everyday habits unknowingly put us at risk? Well, yes and no. According to a periodontist who led a study at King’s College in London some of our modern-day customs can be harmful to our gum health.
In the US, if you’re over the age of 30, you have a 50 percent chance of having mild, moderate or severe periodontal disease. People with diabetes are at a higher risk which is why they must stick to a regular oral health regimen, many times including seeing their hygienist/dentist up to 3-4 times a year.
But what scientists found in the King’s College study of 303 skulls unearthed from a Roman-British burial ground certainly runs counter to our commonly held beliefs about the oral health of earlier humans. While we’re struggling to help our patients keep healthy teeth and gums, it seems our ancestors had very little gum disease to worry about at all. Only 5 percent of the 303 skulls revealed signs of moderate to severe periodontitis. That’s quite a contrast considering that nearly 85 percent of U.S. adults are dealing with some form of gum disease today including gingivitis.
Were our ancestors disease-free?
This particular population from Poundbury, Dorset existed between 200 and 400 A.D. They were mostly farmers sprinkled with a few roman urban dwellers very similar to present day European populations. What makes this puzzling is that this is a population that did not use any of our modern-day dental techniques like electronic toothbrushes, floss or regular dental cleanings. Keep in mind that historical studies do point to the fact that many of our ancestors were probably very well acquainted with gum disease. Ancient writings from the Chinese, as well as the Sumerians and Babylonians mention it. But this particular population stands out because they were non-smokers, had a low level of diabetes (Both of these factors are commonly known to increase the risk of gum disease) and an unusually low incidence of periodontal disease.
While our ancestors may have been gum disease-free, they still had their share of other health concerns. If you were lucky even to live to forty years of age, the peak of old age during that same time period, you probably struggled with malnutrition and infectious diseases which took a huge toll on our ancestors, especially children and the elderly.
So all was not perfect in ancient Poundbury, Dorset. They seemed to suffer from cavities, since many of these same skulls from the Paleontology department of the Natural History Museum showed tooth abscesses and tooth decay. The findings also revealed that their diet was made up of course cereals and thick grains which over time tend to wear and tear at tooth enamel. While this group had no tooth brushes, floss or fluoride to help fight cavities, oddly enough they also had very little gum disease as noted in the study published in the British Dental Journal.
Overall, this study seemed to demonstrate a decline in good gum health between ancient Roman times and present day civilization. So how do we explain it? One key is that the skulls showed no evidence of smoking habits and very little diabetes among the population. One also should remember that we live 2-3 times longer than our ancestors creating so much more opportunity for gum disease. Despite these factors, we really are at a loss to explain the prevalence of periodontal disease nowadays vs a few thousand years ago. One obvious place to look is our diets, which are radically different. More research will be necessary to explain this phenomenon.
Remember regular dental check-ups at Dr. Mark Langberg, DDS, MAGD, PC, can help with plaque build-up, a common culprit of gingivitis and more advanced periodontal disease involving your jaw bone and tooth loss. Don’t put off your appointments until you’re in pain and remember it’s our goal to make all your dental appointments as pleasant as possible. So don’t hesitate to call us at 248-356-8790 and see for yourself what a great dentist can do for you and your family.
Until Next Time,
Mark W Langberg, DDS, MAGD
Your Southfield Family Dentist
Tel: (248) 356-8790