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Hormones May Be to Blame for Women's Cavity Rates

Reproductive pressures, dietary preferences all contribute, anthropologist suggests

FRIDAY, Oct. 17 (HealthDay News) -- Women can blame those extra cavities on their hormones, a new study suggests.

A comprehensive review of dental records in prehistoric and current human populations found that women have more dental health issues than men because of reproduction and fertility issues linked to female-specific hormones.

Previous studies have tied a change in food production by agrarian societies and gender-specific behavioral factors, such as division of labor and dietary preference, to an increase in cavities among women. However, in the October issue of Current Anthropology, John R. Lukacs, of the University of Oregon, pointed more directly at internal as well as external causes.

"I argue that the rise of agriculture increased demands on women's reproductive systems, contributing to an increase in fertility that intensified the negative impact of dietary change on women's oral health. The combined impacts of increased fertility, dietary changes and division of labor during the move into agricultural societies contributed to the widespread gender differential observed in dental caries rates today," Lukacs, a professor of anthropology who specializes in dental, skeletal and nutritional issues, said in a university news release.

He pointed to three main changes leading to women's higher rates of cavities:

  • Female sex hormones. Citing his own research, along with a 1954 animal study that found that female estrogens, but not male androgens, were correlated to cavity rates, he said the cumulative effect of estrogens, including fluctuations at puberty and high levels during pregnancy, promote cavities and dietary changes.
  • Saliva. Women produce less saliva than men, reducing the removal of food residue from the teeth. During pregnancy, the chemical composition changes, reducing saliva's antimicrobial capacity.
  • Food cravings, immune response and aversions during pregnancy. Women often crave high-energy, sweet foods during the third trimester, as well as an aversion to meat in first trimesters.

Yet, Lukacs wrote, it is still not fully understood how these all contribute to a higher risk of cavities in women as they age.

"If hormonal and physiological factors work in an independent or additive manner, their impact on women's oral health could be significant. The fact that women's caries experience increases with age at a greater rate than men's in diverse ethnic groups from different ecological and cultural settings supports this interpretation," he said.

More information

The American Dental Association has more about pregnancy and dental health.

-- Kevin McKeever

SOURCE: University of Oregon, news release, Oct. 14, 2008

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