Less Gum Disease During Roman Times? Don’t Believe It!

Nov 05, 2014, by Dr. Becky Coats

New research claims to show that during Roman times Britons had less gum disease than we do today. If you look at the press release (or any of the news stories that parrot the release), only 5% of Britons had gum disease during Roman times, compared to a gum disease rate of as much as 30% today.

If this sounds fishy to you, you’re right because the study actually shows that gum disease was probably about as bad during Roman times as today.

Defining Gum Disease in the Modern World

One thing we know is that gum disease is very prevalent in our society. Estimates of periodontitis rates in the US show that 47% of people over 30 have it. That’s almost half the population and almost ten times as much as the study says existed during Roman times.

Although Romans didn’t have easy access to sugar like modern people, this disparity definitely leads one to question the efficacy of modern dentistry. Could it all be a sham?

Certainly this is what some people will say, but let’s take a deep breath and look at the definition of gum disease used in the modern world.

The estimate of gum disease includes all stages of gum disease. Most people have moderate gum disease, which accounts for about 30% of the population. The rates of mild and severe gum disease are much less, and similar to one another, 8.7% and 8.5% respectively. Researchers define the severity of gum disease by the amount of gum recession or periodontal pocket depth. For example, severe gum disease is defined as having at least 6 mm or receding gums on two or more teeth, and one tooth with a pocket depth of 5 mm or more.

Evaluating Gum Disease in Roman Times

It’s hard to define gum disease in the past the same way we can define it today. There’s no gum tissue to assess it with. However, the presence of tartar–hardened plaque, what you get scraped away at your regular hygiene visits–tells us where the gums were. This study then defined gum disease as being the presence of three teeth with 5 mm or more of gum recession. This is comparable not to the definition of periodontal disease affecting 47% of the population, but severe periodontal disease affecting 8.5% of the population. Researchers in this study also included people of all ages, while modern estimates only look at people age 30 and over. Disregarding the younger skeletons, the severe gum disease rate in the Roman population was actually about 6.7%.

This is further affected by the age distribution of the populations. Among the Roman people, only 6.3% of the population was over the age of 65, compared to 13% of the population being in this age group today. Considering that people over the age of 65 have much higher rates of severe gum disease, the rate of gum disease is probably comparable between our two populations.

Gum Disease Is a Common Problem

It’s sobering to know that all our advances in dentistry are barely able to keep up with the numerous ways we have invented to damage our teeth and gums, such as smoking and increased sugar intake. However, it’s also good to know that we’re not losing the war on gum disease, and as people become more aware of the risks, quit smoking and take better care of their mouths, we know we can turn the corner against this disease, and reduce it substantially or eliminate it.

If you are looking for help with your gum disease, please call (817) 481-6888 for an appointment with a Grapevine dentist at Grapevine Dental Care.