What can psychologists teach us about dental health? Psychologists from the New York University College of Dentistry, Richard Heyman and Amy Smith Slep, are engaged in unique research to find out.

According to the university press release, there is a growing trend among dentists trying to understand how psychological factors affect oral health. Heyman and Slep are studying this as they co-direct the NYUCD family Translational Research Group, part of the university’s Department of Cariology and Comprehensive Care.

In the release, Mark Wolff, professor and chair of the department says, “There is a major change happening in our beliefs about the impact of psychological factors on both patient behaviors and on the biology of oral health.” Considering family dynamics as a contributor to oral health is a new approach. An officer from the National Institute for Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) contacted Heyman because the agency was seeking to fund unique approaches towards improving oral health.

According to the release, Heyman and Slep – who specialize in couples in conflict – wondered if it would be possible to find out whether conflict was affecting the oral health of their research subjects. There was already research that demonstrated couples’ conflict might lead to increases in blood pressure, lower immunological functioning and slower healing. The professors thought it was important to ask whether these conflicts would also impact oral health. Heyman, Slep, Wolff and the rest of their team was awarded a $1 million grant from the NIH in 2009.

The release states that the team collected data on nearly 150 families. In September 2011, they presented preliminary findings to the NIDCR Council indicating that the more verbal or physical aggression that occurred between parents, the more oral health problems occurred in the child. “There are two hypotheses about how oral helath is affected by parental discord,” Heyman says. “First, lax supervision of children, as an outgrowth of discord, directly impacts children eating sugary cereals and beverages, and not brushing. This second is biological—there is strong research showing that conflict and stress affect the immune system.”

The research team has developed an intervention for couples where discord may impact the oral health of their very young children. The NIDCR awarded the team a clinical trial-planning grant to test the intervention.

The intervention will be conducted over eight sessions that intersect with the development of their infant. In addition to the conflict resolution and healthy parenting training, the university release states that dental exams will be performed on the children at 15 months. The team will look for early childhood caries and contributing factors such as bacteria and hormones related to stress.