Nature vs. Nurture: Is Your Oral Health Down to Your Genes?

Published on May 24, 2021
Nature vs. Nurture: Is Your Oral Health Down to Your Genes?

From crooked teeth to tooth decay, are the oral health issues we experience caused by our genetics - as inevitable as our eye colour and blood type? Or, can these dental conditions be attributed to our environment and lifestyle choices?

In this article, we’re exploring the role of our genes in oral health, in order to tackle the question of whether healthy teeth are a result of nature or nurture.

Do our genes determine our oral health?

If you’re wondering whether you can blame, or thank, your parents for the state of your oral health, the answer is “yes and no”.

The fact is, there are certain oral health conditions that are shown to have a hereditary basis, meaning you may be at a higher risk of developing these conditions due to your genes. Here are some of the dental health issues that may run in the family:

  • Gum disease - If you experience gum disease despite maintaining a good oral health routine, you may be genetically predisposed to this condition. Gum disease can lead to symptoms such as inflamed gums and sensitivity.
  • Tooth decay - Studies have shown that tooth decay and cavities may be linked to certain variations of the gene beta-defensin 1 (DEFB1), which increases the risk of cavities occurring in permanent teeth.
  • Oral cancer - Although lifestyle factors such as smoking tobacco are the main risk factors for oral cancer, genetics can play a part, with an increased risk for people with particular genetic markers.
  • Misaligned teeth - Did you know that your genes can play a major role in determining the size and shape of your jaw? This can result in issues such as overcrowding, gaps between teeth, overbites and underbites.
  • Cleft lip or cleft palate - Cleft lip or palate is a birth defect that occurs when the sides of the lip and roof of the mouth don’t fuse together correctly. Genetics can be a factor in cleft lip or palate, with a higher risk in children whose parents have this condition.

What about the effect of environmental factors on oral health?

While we’ve seen that genetics can play a part in our risk of developing certain oral health conditions, our lifestyle choices are far more important in determining how healthy our teeth and gums are.

Although the prevalence of tooth decay can be linked to hereditary factors, the risk of developing this condition is greatly increased if you consume high amounts of sugary and acidic foods and drinks. Gum disease is also far more likely in smokers and those with poor oral hygiene and/or poorly controlled diabetes.

Similarly, not brushing your teeth twice a day can increase your chances of developing oral health conditions such as cavities, which are caused by bacteria from food debris.

The alignment of our teeth can also be influenced by our behaviours rather than our genes - childhood habits such as using a dummy or sucking your thumb can cause your teeth to develop in a particular way, which may require correction through orthodontics later in life. A lack of chewing exercise and also poor breathing habits are also contributors.

And while tooth discolouration can sometimes be attributed to genetic factors, in many cases it results from lifestyle choices, such as coffee, tea, red wine or smoking cigarettes.

As you can see, when it comes to our oral health, it’s not a straightforward question of nature or nurture, but rather a combination of the two. That said, our lifestyle choices can make a huge difference to the health of our teeth and gums, so no matter what traits you may have inherited from your family, there’s no substitute for a good oral hygiene routine.

If you’re due for an oral health check-up, visit your local National Dental Care Group practice - you can book an appointment online now.


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