Verbal and physical abuse in the home has been linked to poor dental health, and dentists believe noxious behaviors are taking over some families’ lives and their health is paying for it. Researchers from New York University published a study in the Journal of the American Dental Association that found parents who have worse oral health had a hostile living situation with their partners at home.

Negative behaviors such as hitting, kicking, insulting, and threatening, ruin the family dynamic’s regular routines, such as tooth brushing and emotional stress eating. "There's a pretty good history in the [medical] literature of lousy family environments being associated with bad health, so I guess our findings aren't surprising in that regard," the study’s co-author Michael Lorber, director of developmental research for the Family Translational Research Group at NYU's College of Dentistry, told HealthDay.

When Lorber and his research team analyzed 135 mostly white married or heterosexual couples with elementary school-aged children, with an average annual income of $100,000, they were surprised to find the link between abuse and their teeth. Family members are putting their toothbrushes, floss, and mouthwash down to raise their fists and fight with their partners or their children at astonishingly high frequencies. Aggression in the home is a common occurrence in America. In 2005, 90 percent of families reported parent-to-child aggression, partner-to-partner aggression, or both.

"We had a really consistent set of findings that the more your partner is nasty to you, the more lesions are on your teeth," Lorber said. "Maybe if you're fighting like cats and dogs, you're neglecting your teeth ... or eating more sugar and carbs. Certainly the immune system is also known not to function as well in hostile families. It's another way the family environment might impact oral health."

On average, they found women who had 3.5 more cavities and men who had 5.3 more cavities than the average were more likely to experience forms of verbal or physical abuse in their home. Also, they were more likely to eat poorly, which could impact their immune system and lead to greater tooth decay.

"There are lots of ways we can intervene as health practitioners. We can recommend that families brush their teeth twice a day ... and eat healthy foods and floss," the study’s co-author Jane Gillette, a dental researcher and dentist in private practice in Bozeman, Mont., and spokeswoman for the American Dental Association, told HealthDay. "But if you understand the family dynamic going on that might also be giving parents or children poor oral health, you can intervene that way, too, and connect them with appropriate resources in the community."

Gillette added that these findings could be used as a warning sign. Families with poor dental hygiene and health could indicate a dysfunctional family dynamic, however, it also doesn’t prove toxic family behaviors are the cause of poor oral health. "Dentists are kind of an underutilized point of contact for people, because a lot of people go to their dentists pretty regularly," Lorber said. "They're in a position to screen for a lot of things that might not otherwise get caught. We actually envision a future where a dentist would ask those kinds of questions."  

Source: Lorber, M and Gillette J, D.D. Noxious family environments in relation to adult and childhood caries. Journal of the American Dental Association. 2014.