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Teeth Provide Insight to Birth Patterns, Evolution of Menopause

Details of an individual’s life are documented in their teeth, according to researchers at New York University’s (NYU) Department of Anthropology and College of Dentistry.

Details of an individual’s life are documented in their teeth, according to researchers at New York University’s (NYU) Department of Anthropology and College of Dentistry. In their recent work, the mixed-discipline team provides new evidence that impactful events leave permanent changes in the microstructure of cementum. 

The paper, “Parturitions, Menopause and Other Physiological Stressors Are Recorded in Dental Cementum Microstructure,” published in Scientific Reports, brings cementum into focus as scientists analyze how cementum is affected by life-changing events. According to the study, events such as reproduction, menopause, incarceration and systemic illnesses leave permanent changes to the microstructure of the cementum and that such changes can be accurately traced in time. 

“We now have evidence that teeth, as well as bones, participate in whole organism homeostasis to the point that significant physiological stressors permanently affect their microstructure,” says Paola Cerrito, a doctoral candidate at NYU and the lead author of the paper. 

The team examined 47 human teeth (from donors aged 25 to 69) from a skeletal collection with known medical history and lifestyle data obtained from the subject’s next of kin, which included age, illnesses and movement. They then used a series of imaging techniques that illuminated cementum rings, allowing them to connect cementum bands to various life stages, including tooth formation. 

“Just like tree rings, we can look at ‘tooth rings’: continuously growing layers of tissue on the dental root surface. These rings are a faithful archive of an individual’s physiological experiences and stressors, from pregnancies and illnesses to incarcerations and menopause that all leave a distinctive mark,” says Cerrito. 

Several fields of study can benefit from this novel method, including human evolution sciences, forensic anthropology, conservation efforts and archaeology. For instance, Cerrito notes, “Archeologists could use the method to piece together a more complete understanding of the lives of past civilizations by integrating written records of a person’s social and public life to biological data regarding intimate details, such as fertility, menopause, or other physiological stressors.”

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