USask PhD candidate Elsa Van Ankum. (Photo: Submitted)

Research shows that childhood diet may contribute to impacted wisdom teeth

said Elsa Van Ancome, a doctoral student in evolutionary anthropology in the Department of Anatomy, Physiology, and Pharmacology at USask School of Medicine. “While working as an undergraduate at the University of Alberta analyzing skeletons at archaeological sites in Greece and China, I couldn’t help but compare their straight teeth to my teeth with orthodontic problems. I had braces and all four wisdom teeth removed.

“I started wondering why orthodontic surgery and wisdom teeth are so widespread today, and I’ve been following up on the topic ever since.”

Many things changed in the diet after the Industrial Revolution, including the consumption of soft-textured foods that were now processed in factories by machines that partially “chewed” our foods before we bought them. Also, diets were increasingly lacking in vitamin D.

Through laboratory experiments, Van Ancomb found that mice raised on a soft diet that were also deficient in vitamin D tended to have smaller, differently shaped jaws. Vitamin D is important for the formation and growth of bones and teeth. It was also shown that vitamin D deficiency led to the widening of the roots of the teeth, which connect the tooth to the jawbone, affecting the size of the root canal.

Since humans and mice process vitamin D in slightly different ways, Van Ancome is traveling to Britain to collect data from human skeletal remains excavated from archaeological sites. It samples skeletal remains from before and after 1850, the year that serves as a general sign of when dietary changes due to the Industrial Revolution appeared in the teeth and jaw bones, among other bones. Van Ancomb plans to test whether wisdom tooth formation, jaw shape and size differ between pre- and post-industrial populations.

Wisdom teeth surgeries are painful and expensive. For example, over the course of four years, even one insurance provider in Saskatchewan treated 13,500 wisdom teeth extractions, At a cost of $2.2 millionVan Ancom said.

My PhD study is the first to test whether the timing of molar development is related to food texture, vitamin D, and jaw shape using human archaeological samples. We are closer to explaining why our wisdom teeth cause such problems, which could lead to non-surgical strategies, such as changing what we eat as children, to prevent impaction of wisdom teeth. “

Van Ankum has presented her preliminary research findings at several academic conferences since 2019, giving an award-winning presentation. At the 2020 meeting of the Canadian Society of Biological Anthropology. Her work is supervised by Professor USask Dr. Julia Bogner (PhD).

“This project is an example of foundational science,” Van Ancom said. “This kind of research seeks understanding Why Nature is doing what it does, one day shaping the development of policies and practical applications for dental patients in Canada and beyond.”

It will also explore the links between vitamin D and dental development in mice, using information from studies of the human skeleton in Britain. She hopes to shed light on why differences in tooth size, shape, and eruption occur across time periods, cultures, and even mammalian species.

“I am grateful to be a part of this process, especially at a time when there are so many exciting avenues for interdisciplinary collaboration.”

The research was supported by the Foundation for Innovation Canada, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Canada (NSERC) Discovery Grant, the NSERC Undergraduate Summer Research Award, the NSERC Alexander Graham Bell Doctoral Scholarship in Canada, the NSERC MSc Graduate Canadian Scholarship, and the Saskatchewan Innovation and Opportunity Scholarship.

This article was first published as part of the 2022 Young Innovators seriesan initiative of the USask Research Profile and Impact in partnership with Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

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