Toward a genetic understanding of dental fear: evidence of heritability

Community Dent Oral Epidemiol. 2017 Feb;45(1):66-73. doi: 10.1111/cdoe.12261. Epub 2016 Oct 11.


Objectives: Dental fear is a prevalent problem that impacts dental treatment-seeking behavior and thus oral, systemic, and psychological health. Among other important predictors, fear of pain has been shown to be a critical component of dental fear. While learning history (id est, past experience) is known to shape development and maintenance of dental fear and fear of pain, minimal work has addressed genetic etiological variables for these healthcare-related anxieties. With the aim of coming to a more complete conceptualization of dental fear, this study assessed the heritability of dental fear and fear of pain and elucidated the role of genetics in the relation between the constructs.

Methods: Participants (n = 1370; 827 female), aged 11-74 years (M = 29.2, SD = 12.2), in a family-based cohort study completed measures of dental fear and fear of pain. Heritability and genetic correlation were estimated using likelihood-based methods under the variance components framework.

Results: Dental fear was 30% heritable (P < 0.001) and fear of pain was 34% heritable (P < 0.001). Notably, there was substantial genetic correlation between dental fear and fear of pain, ρG = 0.67, suggesting they are genetically related, but likely are distinct phenotypes.

Conclusions: It is clear that, in addition to environmental factors, genetic influences are important in the etiology of dental fear and anxiety and should be considered in future studies of fear and anxiety associated with dental treatment and, potentially, interventions aimed at reducing distress that is a barrier to dental treatment utilization.

Keywords: anxiety; behavioral sciences; dental anxiety; fear; genetics; heredity; pain.