Remember the old sci-fi premise was that we are evolving into intellectual giants
with huge skulls and brains, but tiny faces and bodies?
Is that what is happening? Have our bigger brains been achieved at the cost of
smaller jaws? Is that why most of us have either impacted or missing wisdom teeth
along with crooked, crowded teeth and bad bites?
Well, it doesn’t appear that evolutionary history bears this theory out.
Our jaws shrank to modern human size about two million years ago, when we
differentiated from the other primates.
We didn’t begin suffering from modern tooth decay until the Agricultural
Revolution, 10,000 to 14,000 years ago.
Crowding, malocclusions and impacted wisdom teeth started two hundred to
three hundred years ago, during the Industrial Revolution.
Basically, we had our new, big brains long before wisdom tooth and bite
problems occurred. There is no evolutionary advantage to our dental issues.
This is both good and bad. Good, because we can still be both physical and
intellectual superstars. One does not come at the cost of the other. Bad, because the
fact that all these changes happened in our most recent evolutionary past is very
And it appears that it’s all because of our modern diet.
Anthropological evidence shows that it’s taken only a few generations of eating
soft, processed and mass produced food to make our wide array of dental problems
not the exception but the norm.
And these problems include not only tooth decay, impacted wisdom teeth, and
crooked, crowded teeth. That might be a small price to pay for all our advances.
Unfortunately, there are bigger consequences. These also include our ability to
breathe, metabolize oxygen, brain development, posture, face shape, and even
longevity. We are currently experiencing an epidemic of modern health problems
like sleep apnea, ADD/ADHD, asthma, type II diabetes, etc.
We have learned that the growth of our faces, mouths, jaws and airways are
determined not just by genetics, but primarily by the very muscles that allow
us to chew, swallow and breathe. That old saying “if you don’t use it you lose it”
holds true for our craniofacial development as well.
Traditional orthodontics, particulary in North America, has focused mostly on
tooth straightening for pleasing esthetics. This has meant waiting for most of the
permanent teeth to erupt, around age twelve, and then dealing with the narrow,
malformed arches with extractions and braces. This might create beautiful, straight
teeth, but keeps the jaws and airways small, while maintaining the poor muscle
tone and posture of our chewing, swallowing and breathing muscles.
Most importantly, because most of our craniofacial growth is finished by age
twelve, waiting until this age wastes the precious time that could have been used to
encourage proper muscle function and tone, leading to optimum jaw and airway
growth, as well as tooth alignment.
There is a growing awareness that it’s time to move into a new era of airway
centered orthodontics, where correcting breathing and tongue and facial muscle
functions not only allow our faces, jaws and teeth to grow as they should, but could
also avoid exacerbating some of our modern health problems. As well, it could
minimize the need for heavy duty braces or extractions.
So, what could we do to turn this “de-evolutionary” trend around?
Let’s learn from past generations. Instead of reaching for that
soft, processed convenience food, let’s choose heartier, harder “real” food that
actually requires some chewing and gives our muscles a job to do. Our faces and
mouths, just like our abs and triceps, need a good workout. Let’s give our babies
real food to be weaned on, not pre-packaged, squeezable pulp that they just
swallow. Let’s watch our children for telltale signs of poor muscle function or
posture like mouth breathing, thumb sucking or snoring, and have them see an
airway orthodontist by age four or five, when there is still lots of time to redirect
growth. Better growth for teeth means better airway growth. Bigger airways mean
more oxygen for the brain, and better performance at sports, studying, and life in
general. Let’s recognize that it’s never too late, and that addressing snoring,
mouth breathing, or crooked teeth and bad bites as adults can still make a huge
difference to our esthetics and our health.
Let’s be those smart and healthy super specimens that we were meant to be.