As dental professionals, we know that primary teeth are more than just temporary placeholders for the permanent dentition. Indeed, if someone has problems with their primary teeth, this can impact the health, positioning, and functionality of their secondary dentition.
But what if primary teeth also held clues to other, wider elements of health, such as being able to predict whether people are likely to suffer from mental health conditions?
A fascinating link
As I was browsing the Internet over the holidays I came across an interesting piece of research that could, in some ways, significantly alter how we approach the topic of mental health in the future.
A study that analysed 70 primary teeth collected from 70 children (all of which, I may add, fell out naturally!) argues that a link exists between the physical characteristics of these teeth and the prevalence of mental illness in later life.
All of the children involved were enrolled in a “Children of the 90s” study, and have since grown up, giving researchers the broad time perspective needed to test this hypothesis – the results of which are very interesting indeed.[i]
Teeth can, via physical clues, tell us about certain aspects of an individual’s life. Anthropologists have been using this approach for decades to better understand behaviours of extinct animals and early humans, identifying evidence that gives us insight into both diet and eating habits. But our teeth can tell us much more than that.
Similar to trees and the rings inside their trunks, teeth create a kind of permanent record of life experiences. If an individual goes through a periods of poor nutrition or disease, these times are physically recorded in the structure of the teeth, usually via pronounced growth lines (that may also be called stress lines). These marks also record trauma before birth, and stressful events for the mother during the pre-natal period can cause thicker lines on teeth when they are forming. In fact, the study found that the thickest lines were found on teeth from children whose mothers went through traumatic or stressful periods from 32 weeks of pregnancy upwards, whereas the thinnest of these lines were on teeth from children whose mothers received good social support during this time and after giving birth.
So how does this link to mental health? Researchers found that individuals who had primary teeth with thick lines or other physical stress features were far more likely to experience mental health conditions later on in life than those without them.
Applications in healthcare
First of all, it’s important to remember that, in the grand scheme of things, this study was relatively small and therefore may not be representative of the wider population. However, if the link is explored further and turns out to be true, this could easily change how we approach mental health risk assessment in the future.
For example, if primary teeth could be assessed and any growth lines recorded, this could be a valuable indicator of risk of conditions such as depression and anxiety. By catching this early, healthcare professionals could work together to pre-emptively put support in place for these individuals. This move could potentially even save lives if measures and support help prevent people suffering from mental health conditions that may lead to suicidal thoughts and adverse health.
This information could also be used to better understand mental health risk on a wider scale. The study found that it was predominantly children who came from families where mental health conditions already existed that had these physical markers in the teeth, suggesting that these conditions have hereditary elements.
A clue to understanding a wider problem
Mental health, in many ways, continues to be an enigma. Prevalence of these health conditions continues to rise, and while this is, in part, due to our better understanding of them, it does also put into the spotlight the pressures that we as a modern society are placing on individuals.
Research like the study explored in this article does help us shed some light on the issue, and could truly be a ground-breaking step forward in risk assessment for these conditions and give us clues towards a greater understanding of why mental health problems are so prevalent today.
Holistic care is the future
Overall, one of the main takeaways of this study is that, as we already know, oral health and systemic health are linked in more ways than we can imagine. The more we understand this and the more holistic we become in how we view physical and mental health, the better we will be able to provide care in the future.
For further information please call EndoCare on 020 7224 0999
[i] Science Daily. Baby Teeth May One Day Help identify Kids At Risk For Mental Disorders In Later Life. Link: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/11/211110104603.htm [Last accessed December 21].