Research indicates periodontal disease can run in families and genetic markers can now be identified.
“Research has indicated that some people may be genetically susceptible to gum disease,” says the American Academy of Periodontology. Studies have found, for instance, that gum disease can be more severe in people with a genetic factor linked to cells that produce an excess of inflammation causing cytokines (interleukin-1).
A large study, published in Scientific Reports, documented another way periodontal disease can run in families. Parents with gum disease can pass on pathogens — the bacteria associated with gum disease — to their youngsters simply by living in a close environment. That’s another good reason to see a dentist regularly.
There’s no reason to think you are doomed to gum disease because members of your family have developed the condition. It’s true that gum disease isn’t uncommon, About half of Americans over age 30 have gum disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Among them, the disease ranges from mild to severe. Most people in a CDC survey fall into the moderate range.
But you can lower your risk of gum disease, whether it “runs in your family” or not. Meanwhile, if you develop periodontal disease, getting the appropriate treatment can help prevent serious problems like tooth loss.
Gum disease is caused by microorganisms — primarily bacteria — that generate chronic inflammation. As the disease progresses, it can loosen your gums from your teeth and create deep pockets of bacteria. If left untreated, bacteria will cause your gums to recede, then begin to dissolve the bone that supports your teeth.
Most of the time, gum disease develops when you don’t brush or floss regularly, allowing the sticky bacterial film called plaque to build up on and around the teeth. The biggest risk factor by far is smoking, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. Smoking also lowers the chances of successful treatment for gum disease.
Other risk factors include diabetes, hormonal changes in teen girls and women, and medications that lessen the flow of saliva.
Recent leaps in testing technology can detect hereditary (genetic) susceptibility to severe gum disease. One way is a simple blood test that can indicate the likelihood of your developing severe gum disease down the road even if your gums appear perfectly healthy now.
Even newer are saliva tests, which are easier on you if you get queasy over a finger prick or are afraid of needles. Like blood tests, saliva tests can also assess whether you are likely to develop severe gum disease in the future.
This means that you and your dentist may be able to get a jump on disease development through better oral hygiene, more frequent visits and, perhaps, antimicrobial rinses when the time is right.
Saliva tests will also likely influence the way you are treated to suppress the symptoms of the disease. Many dentists now advise patients to have these commercially available tests if there is a family history of gum disease.
In addition, researchers are working on new ways to prevent and treat gum disease at home. For example, New York University College of Dentistry researchers are studying a topical gel created to block inflammation and change the makeup of bacteria in the mouth to discourage gum disease causing pathogens.
Meanwhile, it would be prudent to learn all you can about the history of gum disease in your family and whether there has been a generational pattern. You may need a periodontal evaluation based on the judgment of your dentist.
January 12, 2023
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA and Janet O'Dell, RN