Kids’ Cavities: Nature or Nurture?

End brushing battlesI know of an interesting family, and I am sure there are many like them. The wife has never had a cavity, and no one in her family ever did. The husband, though his teeth are straight and white, had to have fillings at a young age and still deals with cavities as a grown man, despite good hygiene. Their two preschool-aged children eat the same diet, drink the same fluoridated water, go to the same dentist for checkups and cleanings and have the same parents brushing and flossing their teeth every night and at naptime. Yet, one of the children has already had several fillings and a silver crown, while the other has perfect checkups every time. This scenario prompts an important question. Are cavities a matter of nature or nurture?

As with any great debate, the answer is hardly one or the other. Let’s take a look at the roles both nature and nurture play in oral health. By nature, I mean heredity, or genes. By nurture, I mean habits and diet. Can a parent with “bad teeth” pass along the propensity for cavities? Is it worth it to get cleanings and brush regularly if you have “bad teeth”?

The truth is, nature does play a role. Our heredity influences about everything about us, including our oral risk factors like how our saliva is composed, how much of it our bodies make and the composition of our teeth. Some people may be more prone to problems like enamel defects, crowding, early or late eruption of teeth, bite issues or dry mouth, but careful maintenance can usually overcome them. “Bad” genes are hardly a death sentence, and caring for your teeth is far from futile, no matter how blessed or disadvantaged your smile genes may be!

That’s because nurture is hugely important in oral health. Whether you inherited “strong” teeth or “weak” ones, how you care for yourself is the number one factor in your oral health. You may have to work harder to avoid cavities and gum disease than others, but good habits do pay off.

So what things can you do to make the most of “nature” and “nurture” your family’s smiles?

  • Watch your mouth. You may have the germs that cause dental caries in your mouth, but you weren’t born that way and neither were your kids. The bacteria that feed on sugars in our mouths, producing acid and ultimately leading to tooth decay, are passed from person to person. Don’t share utensils, drinks or extra sloppy kisses with your kids to avoid sharing these cavity-causing cooties.
  • Set the example. You may know by now if the genes fairies blessed you with good teeth, but it’s likely you won’t find out until later with your kids. Either way, you and your kids should be drinking plenty of water, brushing, flossing and seeing the dentist regularly. People with good teeth still only get one (adult) set, just like everyone else!
  • Pay close attention. If you already know you or your spouse has a family history of dental problems, be on the lookout for similar symptoms in your kids. If you see crowding, irregularities in enamel or another problem, be sure to mention your concern and the family history to your dentist. These days, with dental sealants, interceptive orthodontics and so many other preventive treatments, a little vigilance can go a long way to keep smiles healthy.

About the Author

I am a family dentist who treats children as well as adults. Making smiles people love, extreme makeovers and complex dental reconstruction is our niche including implants, TMJ, orthodontics and cosmetic dentistry. As a participant in the blog, I will be offering dental perspectives on pediatric safety and health care options on a regular basis. I can be reached at Blessings to all! Dr Williams is a member of the PedSafe Expert team


3 Responses to “Kids’ Cavities: Nature or Nurture?”

  1. Great refresher Dr. Williams. Genetics really do play a role in dental health, from the spacing of the teeth, health of the teeth, gums and quality of saliva as well as to the durability of tooth enamel. If teeth are inherited, bad habits of past generations do not have to be. So no matter what kind of teeth we inherit, it’s always necessary to maintain good oral hygiene to prevent any dental disease in the future.

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