Do genetics or environmental factors have more of an impact on dental health? The study of identical twins

An image of a child holding a toothbrush to illustrate dental health and the assessment of genetics as a factor
© iStock/NadinPanina

University of Melbourne researchers have conducted a study to answer the question of whether genetics or environmental factors have a bigger impact on dental health.

The study published in Pediatrics on twins’ genomes has shown that environmental causes rather than genetics play a bigger role in determining dental health.

The study investigated the teeth of 173 sets of both identical and non-identical twins from pregnancy to six years old.

Environmental factors vs genetics

Dr Mihiri Silva, from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, said: “How genetics impacts on dental health has not often been studied. This is the first twin study that looks at both genetics and early life risk factors, such as illness and lifestyle.”

Silva explained: “We found that identical twins, with identical genomes, have varying degrees of decay. “This means that environmental factors, like a lack of fluoride in water, seem to be the prime cause of cavities not genetic makeup.”

The paper also estimated that one in three Australian children have tooth decay by the time they begin school.

The role of genetics in dental health

However, the research did find an association between maternal health and lifestyle during pregnancy and the child’s future dental health. Maternal obesity is a marker for increased risk of child tooth decay.

Silva added: “The relationship between maternal obesity and child tooth decay is complex. Perhaps the mother’s weight has a biological influence on the developing fetus or perhaps the risk of decay rises because of increased sugar consumption in that household.”

The implications of the study

According to Silva, “If people think the health of their teeth is down to their genetic make-up, they may not be prepared to make important lifestyle changes…Our findings also reinforce how important it is for pediatricians and other health professionals to educate children to start preventive measures early in life, prior to the onset of damage to dental tissues.”

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