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Genetics Play a Role in Oral Health and Periodontal Disease

Every single feature about you is genetic. Patients regularly ask me if their genes have anything to do with their periodontal disease. They want to know if their parents’ gum disease has been inherited, for example. The answer is that a patient’s oral health is definitely affected by genetics, although the precise mechanisms are not well understood.

I gained a true appreciation for genetics affecting dental health when I went into the Air Force after I graduated from dental school and had the opportunity to see many patients. It has become apparent to me over the years that there are people who clean their teeth regularly and fairly effectively yet have one or both dental diseases—decay and gum disease. On the other hand, there are some people who have no dental decay and no gum disease even when they do not pay any attention to cleaning their teeth.

In dentistry, there are diseases that manifest in the mouth because the body is unable to protect itself from bacteria or viruses or from other conditions such as metabolic problems. In the case of periodontal disease and decay, a person’s immune system can either reduce or eliminate bacteria or it can fail to stop the disease process. Sometimes patients go through a period of time in their life when they are very susceptible to decay and/or gum disease and then their immune system shifts and they have fewer periodontal issues.

This phenomenon is similar to what people with allergies experience. Some people do not have allergies until they are well into adulthood, perhaps in their 50s. Similarly, our immune systems change as we age and this can affect our overall oral health and periodontal wellness. This immune system shift is all genetically controlled. Indeed, it is true that our periodontal health is affected by genetics.

Dr. Karl A. Rose
Chevy Chase, MD