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Gum disease worse now than in Roman Britain

Roman-era skulls from Dorset show less gum disease than modern Brits, due to the invention of smoking and the rise in diabetes.

Scientists from King’s College London examined more than 300 skulls from the Museum’s collections. The skulls came from a Roman cemetery in Poundbury Camp, Dorset, in use around 200-400 AD.

Gum disease, also known as periodontitis, is caused by inflammation, often as a response to a build-up of plaque on the teeth. It causes the loss of bone supporting teeth, and can lead to tooth loss.

In Britain today, 15-30 per cent of adults have chronic gum disease, whereas in the Poundbury skulls only five per cent showed signs of the disease.

The five per cent figure remained steady in the Poundbury population between the ages of 20 and 60, but then rose to around ten per cent. The number of affected teeth, and the number of lost teeth, increased steadily with age.

Modern triggers

Mild gum disease is relatively common today, but factors such as smoking and diabetes can trigger more severe cases. The study’s findings, published today in the British Dental Journal, provide further evidence that modern habits like smoking can be damaging to oral health.

‘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,’ said lead author Prof Francis Hughes from King’s College London.

‘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,’ added co-author and Museum scientific associate Theya Molleson.

'As smoking declines in the population we should see a decline in the prevalence of the disease.'

Tooth decay

A diet rich in coarse grains and cereals also meant the Poundbury population suffered from extensive tooth wear from a young age.

Half of the Roman skulls had some tooth decay or showed signs of infections and abscesses. It is estimated that one in three adults in England today have tooth decay.