The connection between gum disease and cancer has recently been strengthened in a study published in the August issue of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention. According to an article from Harvard Health Publishing, the study found that women with gum disease have a higher risk for cancers of the breast, lung, and esophagus as well as the most dangerous form of skin cancer, melanoma. While researchers admit that it’s too early to say just how gum disease and cancer are related, oral health should still be a top priority for all.
The study was conducted using self-reported information from questionnaires given to over 65,000 older women as part of the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study, which began collecting data in 1994. The survey included questions about whether a dentist or dental hygienist had ever told participants that they had gum disease. These women were followed for an average of 8 years to find out who went on to develop cancer. More that 7,000 cancers occurred among the women during the study period, and researchers concluded that women with periodontal disease had a 14% higher overall cancer risk than women without gum disease — and a higher risk specifically of breast, lung, and esophageal cancers and melanoma.
There are some obvious flaws in the study, as seen in the fact that women are reporting their gum disease status, and not dental professionals. Also, a patient may be told she has “gum disease” at a dental visit where she presents with gum irritation and bleeding, but the dentist is referring to a condition called gingivitis, which can often be cleared up with a dental cleaning. Periodontitis is a more serious form of gum disease and is the type that has been linked with various health conditions. Periodontitis damages the bone that holds teeth in place, and can cause the gums to pull away from teeth or little pockets to form in the gums. These pockets are prone to collect bacteria and can cause infection. Another variable is that while the authors adjusted for certain cancer risks, like smoking, they didn’t adjust for others, such as asbestos exposure, a genetic predisposition for cancer, or the older age of study subjects.
“Periodontal disease is a condition that can affect general health in women,” said Alessandro Villa, instructor in oral medicine, infection, and immunity at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine and associate surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “It has been linked to an increased risk of diabetes, respiratory diseases, and heart disease.”
Women may also be more susceptible to periodontal disease during puberty and pregnancy, possibly because of an increase in sex hormones, said Villa. Women are also at a higher risk after menopause because the mouth tends to become drier, which can lead to gum disease as well as other oral diseases.
While the study doesn’t exactly prove that gum disease boosts cancer risk, that doesn’t mean you can skip your next dental appointment. Periodontal disease has been shown to take a toll on your teeth and health, so prevention is key. Protect your oral and overall healthy by seeing your dentist regularly for a full oral exam. This way, if you are experiencing early gum disease, you can treat it before it develops into a more serious condition. In addition, practice a good oral hygiene routine by brushing and flossing daily and follow good lifestyle habits.