The Roman-British population from c.200-400 AD seems to have had much less gum disease the what we experience today, according to a new study of skulls at the Natural History Museum led by a King’s College London periodontist. The startling findings provide further evidence that modern habits such as smoking can be detrimental to oral health.
Gum disease, also known as periodontitis, is the result of chronic inflammatory response to the build-up of dental plaque. Whilst a substantial number of the population lives with mild gum disease, factors including tobacco smoking or medical conditions like diabetes can cause more severe chronic periodontitis, which can result in the loss of teeth.
The study, published in the British Dental Journal, examined 303 skulls from a Romano-British burial ground in Poundbury, Dorset for evidence of dental disease. Only 5% of skulls displayed signs of moderate to severe gum disease, compared to today’s population of approximately 15-30% of adults suffering from chronic progressive periodontitis.
However, lots of the Roman skulls, which form part of the collections in the Palaeontology department of the Natural History Museum, displayed evidence of infections and abscesses, and half had caries (tooth decay). The Pundbury population also showed extensive tooth wear from a young age, as is to be expected from a diet containing a large amount of rich grains and cereals at the time.
The Poundbury cemetery community, genetically similar to modern European populations, was comprised of countryside dwellers as well as a Romanised urban population. This was a non-smoking population and probably had very low levels of diabetes mellitus, two factors known to greatly increase the chance of gum disease in modern populations. Among the people who survived infancy, childhood illnesses and malnutrition into adulthood, the peak age at death appears to have been in their 40s. Infectious diseases are believed to have been a common cause of death at that time.
Professor Francis Hughes from the Dental Institute at King’s College London and lead author of the study said: “We were very struck by the finding that severe gum disease appeared to be much less common in the Roman British population than in modern humans, despite the fact that they did not use toothbrushes or visit dentists as we do today. Gum disease has been found in our ancestors, including in mummified remains in Egypt, and was alluded to in writings by the Babylonians, Assyrians and Sumerians as well as the early Chinese.”
Theya Molleson, co-author of the study from the Natural History Museum said: “This study shows a major deterioration in oral health between Roman times and modern England. By underlining the probable role of smoking, especially in determining the susceptibility to progressive periodontitis in modern populations, there is a real sign that the disease can be avoided. As smoking declines in the population we should see a decline in the prevalence of the disease.”
Contributing Source: King’s College London
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