When we experience any sort of medical problem, one of the first things we might do is to look to our family history for signs that our issue is genetic. We know that our genetics define a lot of who we are — our hair color, our risk of hereditary disease, even some of our personality traits — but can they also determine our dental health?
The short answer is yes… and no.
Many pieces of oral health are linked to genetics, but we can’t attribute every aspect of a healthy smile to DNA.
Teeth and jaw alignment
Your jaw shape and size is determined by your genes, and in turn, your teeth alignment is heavily influenced by your jaw. Crowding, gaps, overbites, and underbites are all the result of genetics.
There is little you can do behaviorally to help these problems — not even a perfect dental hygiene routine can change the size of your jaw — but a professional can work with you to prescribe braces, headgear, or other procedures to realign teeth for the smile you want.
The classic bane of dental health, cavities, are affected by multiple genetic and behavioral factors. The DEFB1 gene plays a key role in first-line immune responses against invading germs, and research has shown that certain variations along this gene are linked with higher levels of tooth decay.
Saliva production also influences the development of cavities, as a dry mouth has a harder time washing away bacteria. In addition, crowding and misalignment can make it difficult to properly clean your teeth, leading to a greater cavity risk.
Typified by inflammation and sensitivity, periodontal (gum) disease might be associated with the FAM5C gene. A study conducted by University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine researchers found higher levels of FAM5C activation in areas of diseased gum tissue than in healthy gum tissue, suggesting a link between the gene expression and periodontal health. FAM5C has also been implicated in cardiovascular disease, where inflammation similarly plays a role.
Those with weakened immune systems are also more prone to gum disease because their bodies have a more difficult time fighting off bacteria.
Oral cancer risk
Cancer risk is often considered to be rooted in genetics, and it’s not unusual to hear that it “runs in the family.” Evidence does suggest that people with certain genetic markers have a higher risk of oral cancer, but in this particular case, genetics aren’t the primary factor — lifestyle choices like whether or not you use tobacco and alcohol are by far the greatest determinant.
While genetic factors can impact your oral health, they don’t write the whole story. “Linked” doesn’t mean “determined by” — so even if you have one of the genes associated with higher rates of cavities or gum disease, proper dental hygiene can help prevent you from ever experiencing a problem.
Be sure to brush twice daily, floss at least once per day, and visit your dental professional for regular cleanings and checkups. Together you and your dental team can keep your mouth in top shape regardless of your genetic predispositions.