Scientists found that gum disease was far less prevalent 800 years ago than it is in the modern age, despite the lack of toothbrushes and dentists.
The reason may be that people in Roman Britain did not smoke and were virtually free of diabetes, two health factors known to increase the risk of inflamed gums. Severe chronic gum disease, or periodontitis, results from an inflammatory response to bacterial plaque build up and can lead to teeth loss.
Scientists who examined 303 skulls from a Romano-British burial ground in Poundbury, Dorset, found that only five per cent showed signs of moderate to severe gum disease. In contrast, a chronic gum disease rate of 15 per cent to 30 per cent is common in today’s British population.
Lead researcher Professor Francis Hughes, from King’s College London’s Dental Institute, 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.”
However, a lack of gum disease did not mean Roman era ancestors had per fect smiles. Many of the Poundbury skulls showed evidence of other dental problems including infections and abscesses, and half bore signs of tooth decay. The people of Poundbury living between 200 and 400 AD also suffered extensive tooth wear from a young age due to a diet rich in abrasive grains and cereals.
They were genetically similar to modern Europeans and made up of countryside dwellers as well as Romanised urbanites. Among those who survived infancy, childhood diseases and malnutrition, most died in their 40s. Infectious disease was a common cause of death at the time.
The new research is published in the British Dental Journal.