DNA and genes play an important role in our biological makeup and can influence many things about a person. It is no secret that our genetic composition is directly linked to that of our parents and close family, and heredity plays a key role in many aspects of our physical body, such as height or eye color. Learning that we may have a genetic predisposition for developing a certain condition or disease can be both a blessing and a curse – does a genetic susceptibility help us to make wise choices in how we live our lives, or can it lead to a case of self-fulfilling prophecy?
Fortunately, when it comes to dental care, there is a lot more in play. For years, many people have wondered if there is a direct link between the “quality” or “weakness” of their teeth and close family members. For example, if someone is prone to a large number of cavities, are their children subjected to the same fate? Does a history of orthodontics in a family automatically mean that children or close relatives are destined for braces? For some, the automatic reflex may be to think: “Why yes, of course,” but that may not be the case 100% of the time.
Nicole Dahlkemper, DMD, at Water’s Edge Dentistry, explained that up to 30% of the population may be predisposed to a larger number of cavities thanks to a certain type of bacteria found in the mouth. These bacteria can be transferred easily from parents to babies accidentally, and there also is some research that may indicate a link between variations of a certain gene and an increased risk of cavities.
She noted that some individuals also may experience issues due to clenching or grinding their teeth, a lack of calcium or certain chronic conditions, all of which can lead to various dental issues.
“Some people just have to be extra vigilant, especially if they are pregnant, have diabetes or acid reflux,” she said.
That being said, however, Dr. Dahlkemper emphasized that being watchful is key.
“There is a component of genetic predisposition, but nothing can overcome proper dental and oral hygiene. Individuals need to stay on top of their care, which includes brushing and flossing twice per day, getting dental cleanings twice per year and X-rays annually,” she shared.
Omar Figueroa, DDS, at Pine Street Dental agreed: “From my clinical experience, some people can have a large layer of calculus (dental plaque) and don’t develop cavities – just need cleanings. That can also depend on the type of food eaten or the amount of sugar and acid consumed.”
If the need for braces tends to run in families, Dr. Figueroa shared the opinion that genetics play a part but don’t always determine the final outcome.
“Sometimes children might take after one parent or the other. So maybe one child will have a narrow arch that leads to overcrowding and spacers or braces, while the other children might have appropriate spacing,” he said.
Both dentists commented on the importance of lifestyle and external environmental factors: excessive tobacco use, alcohol, sugar, acid and not eating a balanced diet all can have a significant impact on oral health. Even activities such as mouth breathing, sucking on a thumb or using a pacifier for too long can have a dramatic impact on the development of the soft palate and shifting or positioning of teeth, so it’s important for parents and individuals to pay close attention to the habits they, or their children, develop and always make regular dental cleanings and checkups a priority.