Considering that the average person’s lifespan nearly doubled in the last 150 years- from 38.3 years in 1850 to 74.8 years in 2000- you’d be forgiven for thinking that humans enjoy better health today than our ancestors did. While advances in medication, vaccinations, and preventative health care, along with better sanitation, safety regulations, the standard of living, etc., have certainly helped to raise the average lifespan, people today do enjoy many advantages when it comes to overall health.
When comparing the health of people today to that of our prehistoric ancestors, you’d think this comparison would become even more dramatic. However, a recent discovery made by anthropologists has uncovered one aspect of modern health that is worse today than it was for an early man- the health of our teeth.
A Biting Discovery
Even though prehistoric humans didn’t have access to fluoridated water, toothbrushes, plaque busting toothpaste, and preventative dental care, early hunter-gathers enjoyed remarkably healthy teeth, according to researchers at the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA. However, once the typical diet changed from one based around hunting to one that relied on farming and agriculture, researchers found a massive change in the amount of gum disease and cavities in population bases.
This discovery has led researchers to conclude that a large-scale change of diet was the primary culprit behind the continuous fight against oral disease humans engages in today.
Published in the journal Nature Genetics, the study examined the calcified plaque found on the teeth from 34 prehistoric human skeletons. What researchers discovered was that as humanity’s diet evolved- moving away from nuts, vegetables, and meat to foods high in sugar and carbohydrates- so too did the bacteria found in our mouths.
While the typical human mouth contains millions of bacteria, most of these microbes actually help protect people from potentially dangerous pathogens. However, researchers discovered that as prehistoric humans began moving towards farming and away from hunting and gathering, specific types of disease-causing bacteria that thrive off of consumed carbohydrates (known as plaque) started to become more dominant in the mouth. Once the sugar and processed flour became a staple part of food during the Industrial Revolution, the number of harmful bacteria found in human mouths only continued to grow in number.
The Unhealthy Mouth
Once humanity’s new diet upset the balance between healthy and unhealthy bacteria in the mouth, a constant state of flux and disease began to take hold of humanity’s oral health.
Trying to restore a balance between healthy and unhealthy bacteria in the mouth is the primary reason why you need to brush and floss daily. Because the mouths of our prehistoric ancestor’s contained more healthy bacteria than our mouths do today, they enjoyed stronger oral health without the benefits of modern dentistry or oral care products like toothpaste and toothbrushes.
However, unhealthy bacteria now found in the mouths of humans may potentially cause bigger problems than just tooth decay and gum disease. A number of studies in recent years have linked oral health problems to a variety of diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. While researchers are just beginning to see the connection between these diseases and oral care, the long-term consequences of poor oral health give you just one more reason not to neglect your oral hygiene needs.
As for other ways to improve your oral health besides brushing, researchers recommended adopting a diet more like what our ancestors enjoyed, which means cutting out most sugars and processed carbohydrates. If switching to the paleo diet doesn’t seem like your thing, just make sure you keep a toothbrush handy and to schedule regular visits with a dentist.