Genetic test may tell how often you need to go to dentist

File photo of a dentist looking in a patient's mouth, November 28, 2006 John Giles/PA Wire

Our genes may stave off a trip to the dentist.

A new study in which researchers tracked dental patients for 16 years, looking for gum disease and tooth loss, found that people with healthy mouths who have mutations in their IL-1 gene are more likely to have teeth woes than those without the genetic variation.

That suggests people who take care of their teeth and have help from genetics may not need two trips to the dentist each year, advice that has been recommended without solid supporting evidence for more than 50 years, according to the study's author.

"We think that now with this new information, we're able to treat patients at the individual level...instead of a one-size-fits-all treatment," study leader Dr. William Giannobile, chair of the department of periodontics and oral medicine at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry in Ann Arbor, said to CBSNews.com.

Gum disease plagues about 47 percent of adults. Problems range from simple gum inflammation to serious disease that can result in major damage tissue and bone crucial for supporting our teeth. Risk factors include smoking, hormonal changes, diabetes, other illnesses like AIDS, taking medications that reduce saliva production and genetics, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.

Giannobile and his colleagues wanted to look closer at three of the biggest risk factors: Diabetes, smoking and genetic risk, namely the interleukin-1 gene (IL-1).

Variations in the gene have been studied as potential risk factors for inflammatory disorders including bone infections, eye disease, rheumatoid arthritis and gum disease, according to the NIH.

From looking at a pool of over 5,000 patients, the researchers wanted to determine if all things were created equal -- as in people were regular seekers of dental care, didn't smoke, nor have diabetes or have the genetic susceptibility -- then would the number of annual dental visits have any impact on how likely a person is to lose teeth.

The researchers found for these patients who were low-risk across the board, there was no difference in the amount of tooth loss between people who saw the dentist once a year and people who went to the recommended two preventive cleaning visits.

However, people who smoked, had diabetes or the genetic variations (as determined by a saliva swab taken for genetic testing) did face increased risk for tooth loss. People who have several or all of those risk factors may benefit from more than two annual dental visits.

Giannobile emphasized he doesn't want people with healthy mouths to just take genetic test and then skip the dentist forever if they have favorable results.

"That's not the message that we're trying to send," he said. Some people may just need more or fewer cleanings than others. The researcher pointed out about 50 percent of the population does not see a dentist regularly, and people who are not as on top of their dental care are more likely to lose teeth.

"So much of dental care focuses on treatment, but this adds another element to the prevention side," said Giannobile.

The study was published June 10 in the Journal of Dental Research.

It was funded by the National Institutes of Health and tests were provided by Interleukin Genetics, a company that employed two of the study authors.

Dr. Ray C. Williams, dean of the School of Dental Medicine at Stony Brook University in N.Y. told the New York Times that the research, "sounds the signal that it is time to make dentistry more individual and more personalized."

However, he faulted the study for not directly addressing the subjects' oral hygiene, which is a major factor in tooth loss.

"It's an interesting study, but it's not a conclusion that a once a year dental visit is appropriate,"Dr. John C. Comisi, spokesperson for the Academy of General Dentistry, said to CBSNews.com in an email, adding the genetic testing was not readily available yet at dental offices.

"Regular dental exams not only help to decrease a patient's risk of oral diseases, such as cavities and gum disease, but they may also help to diagnose other, sometimes life-threatening, medical conditions" like diabetes, cancer and eating disorders, he said.

The American Dental Association said in a statement in light of the study, it "wants to remind consumers that the frequency of their regular dental visits should be tailored by their dentists to accommodate for their current oral health status and health history."

Warning signs of gum disease include gums that bleed easily, have pulled away from the teeth and appear red, swollen and tender, according to the American Dental Association. Persistent bad breath or teeth loss and movement are also possible. If you're experiencing these symptoms, the ADA recommends you see a dentist.

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