Despite the benefits of fluoride toothpaste, electric toothbrush and floss, modern Britons have worse gums than their ancestors living in the Roman times, scientists claim.
Scientists believe gum disease was far less prevalent 1,800 years ago because people in Roman Britain did not smoke and were virtually free of diabetes – two health factors which can inflame gums.
Severe chronic gum disease, or periodontitis, results from an inflammatory response to the build-up of plaque and can cause tooth loss.
To make their findings, scientists examined 303 skulls from a Romano-British burial ground in Poundbury, Dorset and found that only 5 per cent showed signs of moderate to severe gum disease.
But in modern Britain, a chronic gum disease rate of 15 per cent to 30 per cent is common.
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, while our Roman era ancestors had healthy gums their teeth were by no means perfect.
Many of the skulls in the study showed signs of other dental problems including infections and abscesses, and half bore signs of tooth decay.
Due to a diet rich in abrasive grains and cereals, the people of Poundbury living between 200 and 400 AD also suffered extensive tooth wear from a young age.
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.
Co-author Theya Molleson, from London's 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. As smoking declines in the population we should see a decline in the prevalence of the disease," Molleson added.
Additional reporting by PA
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