“Decay was not widespread like it might
be today,” Professor Hughes said.
“But it was still there, probably a
consequence of the starchy
cereals they ate. “
For all Britain’s access to modern dentistry, flossing and mouthwash, a study published yesterday has found that the buffed and brushed mouths of 21st-century Britons are still more likely to harbour gum disease than those of their third-century forebears.
An analysis of the skulls of more than 300 Roman Britons has found a significantly lower rate of periodontitis, a common form of gum disease, than exists in today’s population. Among those examined — who were originally buried in a site in Poundbury, Dorset — between 5 per cent and 10 per cent had the disease, compared with about 15 per cent to 30 per cent today.
However, they also had considerably more evidence of abrasion on their teeth, probably a result of the diet of coarse grains that was common.
The work involved looking at the sockets holding the teeth into the jaw.
“Because gum disease causes disruption of the bone around the teeth, we are able to measure it,” said Francis Hughes, professor of periodontology at King’s College London.
He and his colleagues analysed a large collection of skeletons held at the Natural History Museum from the Poundbury burial site.
“To a lot of people’s surprise they had quite a lot less periodontitis than the modern human population. It was about a third as common as today,” Professor Hughes said.
Some of the explanation for this does not exactly provide cause for envy: the ancient Britons contracted even more serious diseases first, and died of those instead of suffering through old age with bad teeth.
The most common age at death appeared to be in the 40s.
The reason for the modern mouth to be less healthy than it was centuries ago is probably a result of two things — diabetes and smoking. “Those two change the risk enormously,” Professor Hughes said.
Periodontitis starts as gingivitis, a consequence of poor brushing that often manifests as bleeding and inflamed gums. This response is actually a protective mechanism.
“It’s the body trying fight the bacteria off. In smoking and diabetes that protective mechanism is decreased — the body is less able to fight,” Professor Hughes said.
Starting with bleeding, the disease progresses through receding gums, looseness of teeth and eventually tooth loss.
With a life free not just from smoking and diabetes but also from refined sugar, the Poundbury teeth were similarly less affected by cavities. Nevertheless, the research, published in the British Dental Journal, did not find that the oral hygiene of ancient Britons was something to be aspired to.
“Decay was not widespread like it might be today,” Professor Hughes said. “But it was still there, probably a consequence of the starchy cereals they ate. That increased bacterial growth.”
Some decay went unchecked. Some teeth had decayed to the point where they had infected the nerve and others caused holes down to the jaw itself.
“The amount of chronic infection must have caused a lot of misery,” Professor Hughes said. His profession would have been in demand even in that day and age, he said.
“It’s still a rather good advert for dentists.”