The Great Debate: Can Genetics Cause Cavities?

Just like professionals in every field of work, sometimes dentists disagree on medical theories. One of the most popular areas of disagreement and lively engagement surrounds the theory that dental genetics plays a leading role in the likelihood someone will have cavities. 

 

Some patients deflect the perceived embarrassment of poor teeth on that they are more “prone” to cavities since their parents also suffered. Therefore, it’s not a reflection on their oral hygiene skills, but instead more of a result of genetic tooth decay. 

 

However, does anecdotal experience outweigh data from dental studies? Stay tuned and we’ll dig into the research and let you decide for yourself if you think dental genetics weigh heavily on the health of your teeth! 

 Genetics and cavities

First, what are cavities? 

 

A cavity is another way to say “tooth decay.” The cavity itself is a hole that can grow deeper over time—which is why it’s so important to seek treatment if you think you have a cavity.  

 

Cavities can affect people of all ages. In fact, 90% of adults are walking around with tooth decay at this moment and one in four people currently have an untreated cavity. Cavities are a result of plaque, which results from eating excess sugars and carbohydrates and not cleaning your teeth well. When the plaque attacks the enamel, it eventually wears it down leaving your tooth vulnerable to bacteria and acid. If left unresolved, the bacteria move through the layers of your teeth causing decay at every level. 

 

So, are these cavities caused by poor oral hygiene or bad dental genetics? 

 

Certain populations are more cavity prone  

New data from the CDC shows that African Americans and Hispanics have a higher incident of tooth decay and of cavities.  Experts have concluded that there are three overarching factors that contribute to oral health: biology, social conditions, and behavior. Related studies have shown some African Americans are missing a variant form of salivary protein that helps stop cavity-causing bacteria. And while outstanding oral health might be able to compensate for the lack of that protein, this biological difference creates an additional hurdle for patients in preventing tooth decay. 

Additionally, there are certain DNA strands that make teeth able to absorb more fluoride, creating harder enamel on the surface of the tooth. Those lacking this strand may have weaker enamel, which can result in more cavities. Individuals who produce more saliva also benefit from that genetic quirk, since saliva is one way to eliminate harmful bacteria in the mouth while allowing healthy bacteria a warm, moist place to thrive. Saliva also helps to neutralize the pH of the mouth and prevent excess acids from wearing away enamel.         

Tooth shape 

Both the shape of your mouth and the shape of your teeth are two factors that contribute to the likelihood of you getting cavities. First, small mouths make it harder to brush and floss and reach all the nooks-and-crannies in your mouth. If you know you have a small mouth, take extra time and be diligent on brushing all the hard-to-reach places. Next, teeth that naturally have deep grooves are more susceptible to cavities since food can easily become lodged. Food lodged in these deep groves can be difficult to reach, and since it’s closer to the root any erosion will be more likely to cause extensive and painful damage. Decay in the grooves is very likely to cause cavities, so visiting the dentist to ensure they remain clean and healthy is important. Diligent brushing and flossing is the best way to safeguard against bacteria buildup and tooth decay. 

To summarize, there are many genetic factors that can lead to a higher likelihood of having cavities. Whether it be the shape of your mouth or the makeup of your DNA, tiny genetic factors can cause serious oral health issues if you don’t take the best care of your mouth possible. If you are concerned about cavities that haven’t been treated, call our office today!


Also published on Medium.

About Mark C. Marchbanks, D.D.S.

Dr. Mark Marchbanks has practiced dentistry in Arlington Texas since 1983. He enjoys caring for patients young and old. You can find Dr. Marchbanks on
or on

If it's been more than 6 months since your last teeth cleaning, give us a call today to schedule your check-up.