How Baby Teeth Can Predict Health Problems In Adulthood

Here's something to chew on: scientists in England may have found a new way to predict the specific health risks children will face when they grow up -- and it involves simply looking at their baby teeth.

The idea came from a new analysis of the teeth of victims of the Irish Potato Famine conducted by archaeologists at The Universities of Bradford and Durham.

Old teeth, new analysis. The researchers analyzed baby teeth unearthed from 19th-Century cemeteries in Ireland -- where victims of the famine were buried -- and in London, where many families who fled the famine settled. They looked at levels of nitrogen and carbon in the teeth, and found that the teeth of people who died in infancy had higher nitrogen levels than the teeth of people who lived into childhood or adolescence, The Guardian reported.

The finding seems to challenge the notion that high nitrogen levels are an indicator of good nourishment in infants, since nitrogen isotope levels tend to be higher in breastfed babies.

“At the period we studied, it’s likely that most babies were breastfed, but only some showed the spike in nitrogen isotope levels normally associated with it,” Dr. Julia Beaumont, professor of biological anthropology at the University of Bradford and the leader of the research, said in a written statement. “Where pregnant and breast-feeding mothers are malnourished, however, they can recycle their own tissues in order for the baby to grow and then to produce milk to feed it. We believe this produces higher nitrogen isotope levels and is what we’re seeing in the samples from the 19th-Century cemeteries.”

Predicting adult health. Beaumont added that she thinks examining the biochemical composition of the naturally shed baby teeth of living children today could help predict future health.

“If we can show that baby teeth, which are lost naturally, provide markers for stress in the first months of life, we could have an important indicator of future health risks, such as diabetes and heart disease," Beaumont said.

Beaumont is putting her idea to the test by examining the teeth of children born in Bradford between 2007 and 2010. She hopes to confirm a relationship between nitrogen and carbon isotope levels and the medical history of their mothers as well as the children's future health.

The new research was published online in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology on March 13, 2015.

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