Roman Gums ‘Healthier Than Ours’ | Dr. Colin Richman

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Roman Gums ‘Healthier Than Ours’

December 10, 2014

By: Dr. Colin Richman

By James Gallagher

People living in Roman Britain had healthier gums than their modern-day descendants, a feat of archaeological dentistry shows.

A team at King’s College London and the Natural History Museum found only 5% if adults had gum disease in the Roman, and certainly pre-toothbrush, era.

Modern day smoking and type 2 diabetes are blamed for a figure of nearly one in three today.

But ancient Britain was certainly not a golden age of gleaming gnashers.

The smiles of our ancestors were littered with infections, abscesses, and tooth decay, the studied showed.

Grave Investigation

The research group analyzed 303 skulls from a burial ground in Poundbury, in Dorset. The skeletons, mostly of people who died in their 40s, dated from between AD 200 and AD 400.

Gum disease starts with inflammation and a bit of bleeding. But it can become more severe and damage the bone and supporting tissue deep inside the gum.

It means there is a trace of severe gum disease left in the skeletal teeth and jaws, long after the fleshy gums have rotted away.

Professor Francis Hughes, from the dental institute at King’s College London, told the BBC: “The amount of severe gum disease around today is around one third of the population.”

“But much to our surprise, these people didn’t have a lot of gum disease, but they did have a lot of other dental problems.”

He said that findings, published in the British Dental Journal, were evidence that gum disease was about far more than just brushing twice a day.

Smoking is thought to increase the risk of gum disease fivefold. Type 2 diabetes also increases the risk.

Theya Molleson, 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.”

Chronic Pain

The skulls of children showed extensive signs of wear and tear due to a diet of abrasive grains and cereals.

Professor Hughes said: “We are in a better state overall now because what was clear from the skulls is they had longstanding infections which must have been a source of chronic pain over many years.”

And half of people had tooth decay, but “having said that, a lot of people were surprisingly dentally healthy.”

Commenting on the results, Professor Ian Needleman, the director of International Centre for Evidence-Based Oral Health at University College London, told the BBC: “I liked the study a lot. I was initially surprised, we all tend to expect a lot of dental disease in the pre-toothbrush age and that is clearly not the case. People should keep brushing their teeth, but the study shows oral health is more complex and smoking, diabetes, and possibly diet make a major contribution.

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Signs and Symptoms of Advanced Dental Disease Including Periodontal (Gum) Disease


Chronic disease anywhere in the body is insidious, thus advanced symptoms may only appear late after significant damage has occurred.

Warning signs of periodontal (gum) disease include:

- Redness, tenderness, pain, swollen gums
- Bleeding while brushing, flossing or biting into an apple
- Insufficient long term flossing over a lifetime
- Receding gums, frequently described ‘getting long in the tooth’
- Teeth moving or shifting
- Loose teeth
- Appliances no longer fit comfortably
- Previous history of tooth loss including parents
- History of smoking, diabetes or other metabolic diseases