Mental and Dental health, and the connections between them, was the theme of our previous blog as we welcomed you into the new year.
Additionally now, we extend our interest with some fascinating research. Scientists have been pursuing new connections between mental and dental health in young children.
We at Dentistry for Children are taking an investigative look at the new findings.
Research On Connections Between Mental and Dental Health: Gateways to Children’s Overall Health
Baby teeth may one day help identify kids at risk for mental disorders later in life. Scientists now highly suspect that teeth grow certain lines, like rings on a tree.
Additionally, as published in the Science Daily online magazine, “teeth contain growth lines that may reveal clues about childhood experiences.”
Carved in Enamel: The Story Told By Dental Growth Lines in Your Baby’s Teeth
Initially, when you look at the research, you might understand why psychiatrists and psychologists are taking a serious interest in pediatric studies of their patients’ teeth. They are deciphering an increasingly critical pattern between dental and mental health.
You see, according to the latest research in the growth lines in dental enamel, “the thickness of growth marks in primary (or ‘baby’) teeth may help identify children at risk for depression and other mental health disorders later in life…”
A Little Backstory on the Mental and Dental Connection
The story of this connection between mental health and dental health begins in Bristol, England. More specifically, it begins at the University of Bristol.
Back in the 1990s, a research team “analyzed 70 primary teeth that were collected from 70 children. All children were enrolled in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, based at the University of Bristol.
In the study, parents gave the researchers canine teeth their children shed between the ages of 5 and 7 years old. It was those teeth that held the key to the connection between early developments of teeth growth and later mental illnesses.
How the Mental and Dental Connection Became News
Firstly, the senior author of the research was Erin C. Dunn, ScD, MPH. Dr. Dunn noted that anthropologists made extensive use of dental findings to study primitive cultures. “Dunn is a social and psychiatric epidemiologist and an investigator in MGH’s Psychiatric and Neurodevelopmental Genetics Unit.”
Dunn’s primary study is in the field of childhood adversity. She believes that the effects of childhood adversity are responsible for up to a third of all adult mental health disorders.
Timing and Teeth: Mental and Dental Adversity
Dunn is particularly interested in the timing of adverse events in children’s lives. She wants to uncover the most sensitive periods in childhood development.
- The researcher wanted to identify which periods during a child’s development are the most sensitive when exposed to adversity.
- Dunn noticed that she lacked a tool to measure exposure to childhood adversity.
- First, researchers and counselors tried simply asking people or their parents about painful events in their early years. However, they ran into incidences of poor recall. Likewise, people were reluctant to express painful memories of adversity.
Mental and Dental Connection: Lines in the Teeth
Dunn’s big insight happened when she realized anthropologists have long studied the teeth to learn about the lives of past eras. In her “aha moment,” she stated, “Teeth create a permanent record of different kinds of life experiences.”
Her next insight was two-fold.
1. Firstly, dentists know that exposure to poor nutrition or disease shape or deform the enamel of teeth.
2. Secondly, such stresses results in growth lines within teeth. We even call them stress lines.
The Rings of a Tree Bear Witness
Moreover, lines in the teeth are similar to the rings in a tree. These dental lines mark age, adversity, and experience. “…The thickness of tree growth rings can vary based on the climate surrounding the tree as it forms…”
Likewise, the environment and experience of a fetus and a young child influence tooth growth lines.
Dunn and other researchers like her concluded that thicker, wider stress lines in the tooth enamel indicate stressful life conditions or events. (We might add that we saw this type of dental effect in our tiny patients under the depressing stress of Covid-19 lock-downs, adversities, and deprivation.
More than stress lines, we even saw cracks, but that’s another story.)
Terrific Dental and Mental Take-Aways for the New Year
Therefore, the results of the Bristol study could help dentists and psychologists identify kids who have suffered early-life adversity.
Dunn, who is also a psychologist evolved a hypothesis from these factors:
1. We already know such adversity is a risk factor for psychological problems.
2. In the best of all possible scenarios, if we saw or knew about wide dental lines, we could guild such patients into preventive treatments.
3. Then, we could protect their mental health as they matured.
In Dunn’s words, “…we can connect those kids to interventions…” And she continued, “so we can prevent the onset of mental health disorders and do that as early in the lifespan as we possibly can.”
A Mental and Dental New Year’s Resolution for Your Baby
To us here at Dentistry for Children, this mental and dental connection demonstrates another reason for us to examine your children in the first year of their lives. (There is a good New Year’s Resolution for you if you have a baby.)
And there is more to the Bristol study and this story. However, we are saving it for the next blog. Have a Happy first week of 2022!