Paul Ehrlich

Stanford’s biologist and population studies specialist Paul Ehrlich and orthodontist Sandra Kahn have recently co-authored a book which identifies a ‘hidden epidemic’ in our physical development.

Spending years researching the topic, the new book titled Jaws: The Story of a Hidden Epidemic studies the connection between underdeveloped jaws, modern life, and how it impacts our health and self-perceptions. The book makes the case that crooked teeth and the need for braces are a relatively modern dental phenomenon in history. In fact, more and more people are having dental issues than ever before.

Jaws thus makes the case that “eating soft foods, living in confined spaces with allergens and poor posture, like mouth breathing,” all-cause recessed physical development. This can cause not only unseemly cosmetic changes to our appearance, but many health issues which often go undiagnosed. This degenerative process has only accelerated in the past century.

Biologist Paul Ehrlich, a professor and long-time faculty member of Stanford University in entomology and population studies, sat down with Stanford News for an interview on the topic.

Ehrlich: Modern Lifestyle to Blame?

“I’ve never seen a hunter-gatherer skull with crooked teeth,” he told the interviewer. This was a topic of conversation he first had with Richard Klein, a fellow Stanford paleontologist. Klein is one of the foremost experts in the world on the human fossil record.

Indeed, the fact that up until recently our fossil record shows little to no crooked teeth has been a topic of conversation among scientists for some time now. Palaeontologist Daniel Lieberman notes this same pattern in his book, The Story of the Human Body: “Our ancestors did not suffer from crooked teeth to the same extent that we do today.”

According to Ehrlich, skulls from just a few hundred years ago compared to today show significant changes in the makeup of our jaws. Our palates are much narrower. The clear trend is that our jaws are getting smaller, a trend which began during industrialization as our lives became more sedentary.

And there’s tons of data, according to Ehrlich, that we can extrapolate from to show this clear trend. Introducing a largely-liquid or softer diet to our societies has been a kind of a “natural experiment,” he said. In response to those asking for further data, Ehrlich told Stanford News that the case is obvious: “lack of chewing naturally influences jaw development just as not walking would change leg development.”

An Expensive Epidemic

Of course, although the stakes are not quite as high compared to other crises (like climate destruction), as Ehrlich admits, recessed physical development due to our modern lifestyle is nonetheless still worth discussing. It’s a reality hardly recognized. The book describes “an epidemic that is causing a lot of expense – think braces – and misery,” Ehrlich argues.

“Parents should watch their kids for signs that their jaw development is going in the wrong direction, such as mouth breathing, ‘gummy’ smiles, trouble sleeping and morning tiredness. Snoring in kids is a strong danger sign. Get help early.”

Sleep apnea, poorer physical appearance, improper swallowing, and more expensive dental work. These can all be prevented by teaching proper oral posture to children. Ehrlich says that by merely keeping your mouth closed when not eating or talking, you can correct yourself.

“Lips closed, tongue on the palate, and teeth lightly touching” is the correct way to do it, Ehrlich explains.

Is Mastic Gum the Solution?

With too many soft foods in our diet, especially as children, our jaws are left underdeveloped. It’s a problem that affects our development well into adulthood. Ehrlich endorses chewing mastic gum as a possible way to partly reverse this process by strengthening your jaw muscles.

However, the real solution will have to be realized generationally. Babies and toddlers simply shouldn’t be eating mostly soft foods like they do today, he says.

Overall, these problems can be corrected in succeeding generations if proper tongue posture is introduced alongside common dental practices. For now, as Ehrlich says, it’s still a “hidden epidemic”. However, he hopes his book will bring this new concept to today’s medical practitioners and academics.

Jaws: The Story of a Hidden Epidemic is a detailed piece of work with years of research behind it. Check it out for the full analysis of this “hidden epidemic” so rarely discussed.

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