A new study led by researchers from Tufts University School of Medicine and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has found that advanced gum disease is associated with an increased risk of cancer.
Oral diseases such as cavities and gum disease are common in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 80% of adults have at least 1 cavity by the age of 34, and 46% of adults aged 30 and older show signs of gum disease. Bacteria in dental plaque produce acids that break down tooth enamel, which can lead to tooth decay and cavities. When left untreated, tooth decay can lead to severe infection under the gums which can spread to other parts of the body. Gingivitis, or a gum infection, can lead to a more serious condition known as periodontal disease, in which the gums pull away from the teeth and the bones supporting the teeth can be lost, leading to tooth loss. More than 70% of adults age 65 and older have some form of periodontal disease. Factors that can contribute to periodontitis include diabetes, a weakened immune system, poor oral hygiene, and heredity.
Now, in a new study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, researchers examined the link between periodontal disease and risk of cancer. While previous studies have found that advanced gum disease may increase cancer risk by 14% to 20% due to immune response changes or the spread of harmful bacteria, the authors of the new study say previous research has had limitations. Noting the prevalence of periodontal disease, the authors emphasized the potential public health impact of oral health.
The research team looked at dental data collected from 7,466 participants enrolled in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities study in the late 1990s who were followed until 2012. At follow-up, there were 1,648 cancer cases among study participants and 547 cancer deaths. Those who had severe periodontitis experienced a 24% increased risk of developing cancer compared to participants with mild or no periodontitis. Participants without any teeth had a 28% increased risk of total cancer and an 80% increased risk of colorectal cancer. The risk of lung disease doubled in those with severe periodontal disease.
“This is the largest study addressing the association of gum disease and cancer risk using dental examinations to measure gum disease prior to cancer diagnosis,” said first author Dominique Michaud, ScD, in a recent press release from Tufts University School of Medicine. Dr. Michaud also pointed out that previous research has found bacteria associated with periodontal disease in colorectal cancer tissues. “Additional research is needed to evaluate if periodontal disease prevention and treatment could help alleviate the incidence of cancer and reduce the number of deaths due to certain types of cancer.”
The CDC notes that the United States spends more than $113 billion a year on cost related to dental care, and loses more than $6 billion of productivity each year when individuals miss work to receive dental care. To maintain good oral hygiene, dentists recommend brushing with a fluoride toothpaste at least twice daily, flossing, drinking fluoridated water, and avoiding tobacco products.