Why milk teeth give clues to your child’s mental health
February 16, 2019 01:00 PM NPT
Children with thin tooth enamel are more likely to develop mental health problems in later life, a new study finds. Researchers have analysed the milk teeth lost by primary school children and found that they could offer vital clues to their future happiness. Tooth scans could one day be used to flag up – and potentially head off – children at high risk of health problems further down the road, they say.
Enamel thickness key
The researchers have found that children with less enamel recorded higher levels of behavioural problems such as aggression and having problems concentrating. Children with lower volumes of the tooth pulp beneath the enamel were also more prone to difficulties. Furthermore, the link between enamel thickness and behavioural problems was at least as strong as the link with socio-economic standing, the research found. This suggests that teeth are a better predictor of whether a child will go on to develop mental health issues than family and social status.
Forms in womb
The milk teeth start forming in the womb and complete their formation during the first year of a child’s life. A thin layer suggests some kind of early trauma which could, for example, be related to the mother’s nutrition or stress during pregnancy or the child’s experience of these things, according to Erin Dunn, of the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. This trauma appears to impede the growth of the enamel as well as contributing to mental health problems later on, the study suggests. “We saw that children who had thinner enamel tended to also have mental health symptoms in the form of what we call “externalizing symptoms” – which are more outwardly observable emotional and behavior problems. So acting out, aggression, inattention, impulsivity. hostility, not paying attention and not listening,” Dr Dunn said.
More important than socio-economic factors
“What was interesting is that the magnitude of the correlation was about on par and in some cases, even larger than associations we saw with socio economic status – which is one of the biggest risk factors for mental health symptoms,” Dr Dunn said. Speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual conference in Washington, she stressed that her findings were based on small-scale studies and that larger ones were needed. However, she is hopeful that her findings can be adapted into a tool to help medics identify children at high risk of mental health problems.
“We have spent decades trying to find ways to identify people – especially children – who are at risk of having mental health problem in the future. Imagine if teeth could begin to unlock that mystery,” she said. “What completely blows me away is the untapped potential. I often ask myself: have we been ignoring an indicator that could tell us all of this information? And better yet, is all of this information stored within a resource that most parents either keep stored in a drawer or throw away [milk teeth]?” she said.