Your teeth provide a detailed account of your life, much as a tree’s rings record its history, a groundbreaking study shows.

“A tooth is not a static and dead portion of the skeleton. It continuously adjusts and responds to physiological processes,” said lead study author Paola Cerrito, a doctoral candidate studying anthropology and dentistry at New York University (NYU) in New York City.

“Just like tree rings, we can look at ‘tooth rings’: continuously growing layers of tissue on the dental root surface,” she said in a university news release. “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 permanent mark.”

For the study, the NYU researchers compared nearly 50 teeth from skeletons of people who ranged in age from 25 to 69 to information about their medical history and lifestyle, such as age, illnesses, significant events and where they lived.

The researchers focused on cementum, the tissue covering the tooth’s root. It begins to form yearly layers from the time the tooth appears in the mouth.

Using imaging techniques to illuminate cementum bands, the investigators uncovered links between tooth formation and various events in the lives of those included in the study.

“The cementum’s microstructure, visible only through microscopic examination, can reveal the underlying organization of the fibers and particles that make up the material of this part of the tooth,” Cerrito said.

According to study co-author Timothy Bromage, a professor at NYU’s College of Dentistry, “The discovery that intimate details of a person’s life are recorded in this little-studied tissue promises to bring cementum straight into the center of many current debates concerning the evolution of human life history.”

The findings were published March 25 in the journal Scientific Reports.

More information

The American Dental Association has more on teeth and life stages.