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Our Ancestors Had The Same Dental Problems Like Us – Even Without The Sweets!

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Dental erosion is one of the most common tooth problems in the world today. Fizzy drinks, fruit juice, wine, and other acidic food and drink are usually to blame, although perhaps surprisingly the way we clean our teeth also plays a role. This all makes it sound like a rather modern issue. But research suggests actually humans have been suffering dental erosion for millions of years.

My colleagues and I have discovered dental lesions remarkably similar to those caused by modern erosion on two 2.5m-year-old front teeth from one of our extinct ancestors. This adds to the evidence that prehistoric humans and their predecessors suffered surprisingly similar dental problems to ourselves, despite our very different diets.

Dental erosion can affect all dental tissue and typically leaves shallow, shiny, lesions in the enamel and root surface. If you brush your teeth too vigorously you can weaken dental tissue, which over time allows acidic foods and drinks to create deep holes known as non-carious cervical lesions (NCCLs).

We found such lesions on the fossilised teeth from a human ancestor species Australopithecus africanus. Given the lesions’ size and position, this individual would likely have had toothache or sensitivity. So why did this prehistoric hominin have tooth problems that look indistinguishable from that caused by drinking large volumes of fizzy drinks today?

The answer may come back to another unlikely parallel. Erosive wear today is often also associated with aggressive tooth brushing. Australopithecus africanus probably experienced similar dental abrasion from eating tough and fibrous foods. For lesions to form, they would still have needed a diet high in acidic foods. Instead of fizzy drinks, this probably came in the form of citrus fruits and acidic vegetables. For example, tubers (potatoes and the like) are tough to eat and some can be surprisingly acidic, so they could have been a cause of the lesions.

Dental erosion is extremely rare in the fossil record, although this might be because researchers haven’t thought to look for evidence of it until now. But another type of problem, carious lesions or cavities, has been found more often in fossilised teeth.

Cavities are the most common cause of toothache today and are caused by consuming starchy or sugary food and drink including grains. They are often considered a relatively modern problem linked to the fact that the invention of farming introduced large amounts of carbohydrates, and more recently refined sugar, to our diets.

But recent research suggests this is not the case. In fact, cavities have now been found in tooth fossils from nearly every prehistoric hominin species studied. They were probably caused by eating certain fruits and vegetation as well as honey. These lesions were often severe, as in the case of cavities found on the teeth of the newly discovered species, Homo naledi. In fact, these cavities were so deep they probably took years to form and would almost certainly have caused serious toothache.

Dental Abrasion
Another striking type of dental wear is also more common in the fossil record, and again we can guess how and why it was created by looking at the teeth of people alive today. This process, called dental abrasion, is caused by repeatedly rubbing or holding a hard item against a tooth. It could come from biting your nails, smoking a pipe or holding a sewing needle between your teeth. These activities usually take years to form noticeable notches and grooves, so when we find such holes in fossilised teeth they offer fascinating insights into behaviour and culture.

The best examples of this type of prehistoric dental wear are “toothpick grooves”, thought to be caused by repeatedly placing an object in the mouth, usually in the gaps between the back teeth. The presence of microscopic scratches around these grooves suggests they are examples of prehistoric dental hygiene, where the individual has used stick or other implements used to dislodge food. Some of these grooves are found on the same teeth as cavities and other dental problems, suggesting they may also be evidence of people trying to relieve their toothache.

These lesions have been found in a variety of hominin species, including prehistoric humans and Neanderthals, but only in the species most closely related to us, not our older ancestors. This might mean this tooth wear is the result of more complex behaviour from species with larger brains. But more likely it’s a consequence of different diets and cultural habits.

What we do know for sure is that the complex and severe dental problems we often associate with a modern diet of processed foods and refined sugars actually existed far back into our ancestry, although less frequently. Further research will likely show that lesions were more common than previously thought in our ancestors, and ultimately will provide more information into the diet and cultural practices of our distant fossil relatives.

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Can These Proteins Cure Cavities?

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Researchers at the University of Washington have designed a convenient and natural product that uses proteins to rebuild tooth enamel and treat dental cavities.

The research finding was first published in ACS Biomaterials Science and Engineering.

“Remineralization guided by peptides is a healthy alternative to current dental health care,” said lead author Mehmet Sarikaya, professor of materials science and engineering and adjunct professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Department of Oral Health Sciences.

The new biogenic dental products can — in theory — rebuild teeth and cure cavities without today’s costly and uncomfortable treatments.

“Peptide-enabled formulations will be simple and would be implemented in over-the-counter or clinical products,” Sarikaya said.

Cavities are more than just a nuisance. According to the World Health Organization, dental cavities affect nearly every age group and they are accompanied by serious health concerns. Additionally, direct and indirect costs of treating dental cavities and related diseases have been a huge economic burden for individuals and health care systems.

“Bacteria metabolize sugar and other fermentable carbohydrates in oral environments and acid, as a by-product, will demineralize the dental enamel,” said co-author Sami Dogan, associate professor in the Department of Restorative Dentistry at the UW School of Dentistry.

Although tooth decay is relatively harmless in its earliest stages, once the cavity progresses through the tooth’s enamel, serious health concerns arise. If left untreated, tooth decay can lead to tooth loss. This can present adverse consequences on the remaining teeth and supporting tissues and on the patient’s general health, including life-threatening conditions.

Good oral hygiene is the best prevention, and over the past half-century, brushing and flossing have reduced significantly the impact of cavities for many Americans. Still, some socio-economic groups suffer disproportionately from this disease, the researchers said. And, according to recent reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the prevalence of dental cavities in Americans is again on the rise, suggesting a regression in the progress of combating this disease.

Taking inspiration from the body’s own natural tooth-forming proteins, the UW team has come up with a way to repair the tooth enamel. The researchers accomplished this by capturing the essence of amelogenin — a protein crucial to forming the hard crown enamel — to design amelogenin-derived peptides that biomineralize and are the key active ingredient in the new technology. The bioinspired repair process restores the mineral structure found in native tooth enamel.

“These peptides are proven to bind onto tooth surfaces and recruit calcium and phosphate ions,” said Deniz Yucesoy, a co-author and a doctoral student at the UW.

The peptide-enabled technology allows the deposition of 10 to 50 micrometers of new enamel on the teeth after each use. Once fully developed, the technology can be used in both private and public health settings, in biomimetic toothpaste, gels, solutions and composites as a safe alternative to existing dental procedures and treatments. The technology enables people to rebuild and strengthen tooth enamel on a daily basis as part of a preventive dental care routine. It is expected to be safe for use by adults and children.

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Is the Sweet Tooth Gene Connected With Having Less Body Fat?

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People with a gene variation of FGF21 have a predisposition to less body fat than others, new research conducted at the University of Copenhagen, among others, shows.

It comes as a bit of a surprise to the researchers, who last year discovered that precisely this genetic variation could be one of the reasons why some people have a particular craving for sweet things. People with this variation eat more sugar than others.

‘It sort of contradicts common intuition that people who eat more sugar should have less body fat. But it is important to remember that we are only studying this specific genetic variation and trying to find connections to the rest of the body. This is just a small piece of the puzzle describing the connection between diet and sugar intake and the risk of obesity and diabetes’, says one of the researchers behind the study, Associate Professor Niels Grarup from the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research.

Higher Blood Pressure and More ‘Apple Shape’

But the effects associated with the genetic variation are not all positive, the new study shows. The genetic variation is connected with slightly increased blood pressure and more fat around the waist than the hips — that is, more ‘apple shape’.

The study is an international collaboration headed by researchers at the University of Exeter Medical School and has just been published in the scientific journal Cell Reports.

The researchers’ conclusions are based on large amounts of data. They have studied health information from more than 450,000 individuals who have allowed their data to be recorded in the UK Biobank. It includes blood samples, questionnaires on diet and genetic data, among other things.

‘Now that so many people are involved in the study, it gives our conclusions a certain robustness. Even though the difference in the amount of body fat or blood pressure level is only minor depending on whether or not the person has this genetic variation or not, we are very confident that the results are accurate. Around 20 per cent of the European population has this genetic predisposition’, says Niels Grarup.

Potential Drug Target

This new knowledge about people with a ‘genetic sweet tooth’ is mainly important in connection with the development of drugs and future research. Because researchers are currently trying to determine whether it is possible to target or replace FGF21 using drugs in order to treat for obesity and diabetes.

‘Due to its connection with sugar, FGF21 constitutes a potential target in the treatment of for example obesity and diabetes. This research helps us to understand the underlying mechanisms of the hormone and to predict its effects and side effects’, says Niels Grarup.

The study is funded by the European Research Council (ERC), the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the Novo Nordisk Foundation, among others.

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Losing Teeth During Middle Age Linked To An Increased Risk Of Cardiovascular Disease

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Losing two or more teeth in middle age is associated with increased cardiovascular disease risk, according to preliminary research presented at the American Heart Association’s Epidemiology and Prevention | Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health Scientific Sessions 2018, a premier global exchange of the latest advances in population-based cardiovascular science for researchers and clinicians.

Studies have shown that dental health problems, such as periodontal disease and tooth loss, are related to inflammation, diabetes, smoking and consuming less healthy diets, according to study author Lu Qi, M.D., Ph.D., professor of epidemiology at Tulane University in New Orleans.

“Previous research has also found that dental health issues are associated with elevated risk of cardiovascular disease,” Qi said.

“However, most of that research looked at cumulative tooth loss over a lifetime, which often includes teeth lost in childhood due to cavities, trauma and orthodontics. Tooth loss in middle age is more likely related to inflammation, but it hasn’t been clear how this later-in-life tooth loss might influence cardiovascular disease risk.”

In a collaborative research effort between Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Qi and colleagues analyzed the impact of tooth loss in large studies of adults, aged 45 to 69 years, in which participants had reported on the numbers of natural teeth they had, then in a follow-up questionnaire, reported recent tooth loss. Adults in this analysis didn’t have cardiovascular disease when the studies began. The researchers prospectively studied the occurrence of tooth loss during an eight-year period and followed an incidence of cardiovascular disease among people with no tooth loss, one tooth lost and two or more teeth lost over 12-18 years.

They found:

  • Among the adults with 25 to 32 natural teeth at the study’s start, those who lost two or more teeth had a 23 percent increased risk of cardiovascular disease, compared to those with no tooth loss.
  • The increased risk occurred regardless of reported diet quality, physical activity, body weight and other cardiovascular risk factors, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.
  • There wasn’t a notable increase in cardiovascular disease risk among those who reported losing one tooth during the study period.
  • Cardiovascular disease risk among all the participants (regardless of the number of natural teeth at the study’s start) increased 16 percent among those losing two or more teeth during the study period, compared to those who didn’t lose any teeth.
  • Adults with less than 17 natural teeth, versus 25 to 32, at the study’s start, were 25 percent more likely to have cardiovascular disease.

“In addition to other established associations between dental health and risk of disease, our findings suggest that middle-aged adults who have lost two or more teeth in recent past could be at increased risk for cardiovascular disease,” Qi said.

“That’s regardless of the number of natural teeth a person has as a middle-aged adult, or whether they have traditional risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as poor diet or high blood pressure.”

Armed with the knowledge that tooth loss in middle age can signal elevated cardiovascular disease risk, adults can take steps to reduce the increased risk early on, he said.

A limitation of the study was that participants self-reported tooth loss, which could lead to misclassification in the study, according to Qi.

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