Why Do We Have Wisdom Teeth?

Often between the ages 17 and 21, most adults will develop their third set of molars. These molars are more commonly called wisdom teeth.

Wisdom teeth are a bit of a mystery to most people. Why would we develop teeth that, in most cases, just end up being pulled out? While wisdom teeth are something modern humans have come to dread, the function of wisdom teeth dates back to our early ancestors.
Teeth are categorized by their placement and function. The sharper teeth can tear food into smaller pieces and the flatter teeth grind food down. Wisdom teeth are the flatter kind of teeth, called molars. Molars are all the way in the back of your mouth. Adults get three sets of molars on top and bottom, and on both sides of the mouth.

From infancy through early adolescence, humans develop their first set of teeth, lose them, and get a whole new set again. There’s a brief pause and then again, in early adulthood, the final set of teeth emerge.

They’re called wisdom teeth because they’re the last teeth to emerge. You’re presumably “wiser” when these teeth come in.

Why We Get Wisdom Teeth

Our earliest ancestors survived on a diet of raw meat, nuts, roots, berries, and leaves. They didn’t have the luxury of using knives to cut and prepare food, and cooking their meat wasn’t even an option. Chewing these tough, coarse foods required a broader jaw and strong molars.

The larger jaw that was common in our ancestors easily accommodated the wisdom teeth. This allowed them to erupt (grow) into the mouth normally.

How frequently do people get wisdom teeth?

All of the teeth a person will ever have are present at birth, higher up in the skull structure. First, a set of 20 baby teeth erupts and falls out. Then 32 permanent teeth grow in. The first set of molars usually becomes visible at age 6, the second set around 12, and the final set (wisdom teeth) sometime before age 21.

Genetics still cause most adults to develop their wisdom teeth. One study found that at least 53% of people had at least one wisdom tooth come in. Men were more likely to have them than women.

However, just because you don’t see all of your wisdom teeth doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Sometimes wisdom teeth don’t ever erupt and won’t ever become visible. An X-ray can confirm if you have wisdom teeth under your gums.

Whether visible or not, wisdom teeth can cause oral health problems. Wisdom teeth that haven’t erupted through the gums are called impacted. Sometimes this causes even more problems than visible wisdom teeth.

Why We Don’t Need Wisdom Teeth Today

To find out why we don’t need wisdom teeth anymore, take a look at what we are eating. More importantly, look at how we prepare the food we eat. Many experts today believe that eating softer foods, especially as children, plays a role in impacted wisdom teeth.

We cut, boil, and bake almost everything we eat. All of that food preparation has made eating a pretty easy feat to accomplish.

Experts believe that our jawline has become less broad and smaller over the years due to how food is prepared and consumed. Tough foods seem to stimulate jaw growth in childhood, making it more likely that third teeth will fit. Wisdom teeth are no longer necessary and our jaws no longer have room to accommodate them, which is why wisdom teeth typically need to be extracted.

Why are wisdom teeth removed?

Smaller jaws mean there isn’t always enough room in the mouth for all the teeth we’re supposed to have. There are four wisdom teeth in total, two on top and two on the bottom. People can have any number of wisdom teeth from none to all four.

Most jaws are done growing by the time a person is 18 years old, but most wisdom teeth emerge when a person is around 19.5 years old. Most problems caused by wisdom teeth are due to the fact that they just don’t fit.

Problems associated with wisdom teeth include:

  • crooked teeth
  • crowded teeth
  • wisdom teeth growing sideways
  • increased tooth decay
  • jaw pain
  • cysts under the gums and possibly tumours

If any of the above changes are apparent, wisdom teeth removal may be necessary.

It’s recommended that teenagers be evaluated for wisdom teeth removal surgery. People who get their wisdom teeth removed at a younger age tend to heal better from surgery, before the roots and bone have fully formed. This can help avoid any potential problems before they start.

There are always risks associated with surgery so be sure to ask a lot of questions when you’re deciding whether or not to have these teeth removed. If you decide not to have your wisdom teeth removed, they need to be monitored closely by your dentist. Wisdom teeth tend to become more problematic over time.

Sometimes dentists will recommend wisdom tooth removal before any orthodontic work, like braces, to ensure that these teeth don’t erupt later and undo all the hard work of shaping your jaw and teeth.

Why Are They Called “Wisdom” Teeth?

Your third molars are the last set of teeth to appear in the mouth. They typically erupt between 17 and 21 years old.

Due to this later age, they became known as “wisdom” teeth. It’s likely that the nickname has something to do with the adage or belief that “with age comes wisdom.”

Talk to Toothfairy

If you’re experiencing any dental pain or issues with your wisdom teeth, book an emergency appointment with Toothfairy here: www.toothfairyapp.co.uk/emergency-dentist

Last updated on February 29, 2024

Dr. Deepak Aulak

Dr. Deepak Aulak is a London-based dental practitioner with a special interest in cosmetic dentistry. Having graduated from King's College London in Dentistry, Dr. Aulak was decorated with over a dozen awards and scholarships along the way, which notably include the Jelf Medal, Malleson Prize for research and GKT Hospital's Full Shields.


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