As patients of Dr. Greg Williams know, studies have found compelling links between severe gum disease and an increased risk for developing cancer. In fact, a recent study has found that this increased risk is far greater when compared to individuals with only mild gum disease or healthy gums.
According to the study, individuals suffering with severe periodontitis had twice the risk for developing lung cancer and a two times greater risk for developing colorectal cancer.
“Periodontal disease can cause bacteremia, endotoxemia, and system low-grade inflammation. There is accumulating evidence that these conditions are contributing to chronic diseases, including heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and cancer,” wrote the study’s lead researcher, Dr. Dominique Michaud. “The question of ‘how much’ remains to be determined but, in our study, we noted a 24% higher risk for cancer when evaluating risk among those with severe periodontitis compared with those with no or mild periodontitis.”
This latest study confirms previous research that linked gum disease with cancer risk. However, some of these earlier studies failed to adequately take into account smoking, self-reported diagnosis of disease, and too few cancer cases. These limitations severely hampered the reliability of previous study results. Other studies found a 14 percent to a 20 percent increased risk for cancer after adjusting for smoking.
Understanding the Connection
As part of their study, researchers examined the records of over 7,400 patients who were involved in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities study – which examined participants between the ages of 44 to 66 – the determine what association may exist between gum disease and increased risk for cancer.
Each of the study participants underwent a thorough oral evaluation and had measurements taken of any pockets that had developed in their gum tissue. One of the early signs of severe gum disease is when gum tissue begins to pull away from the base of a patient’s teeth. This separation causes “pockets” to form where harmful oral bacteria can begin to accumulate, attacking the base of teeth and destroying bone and gum tissue.
Patients suffering from severe periodontitis had more than 30 percent of their gum pockets with depths of greater than 3 mm, compared to patients with no or mild periodontal disease who had less than 10 percent of their sites with pocket depths greater than 3 mm.
During the follow-up period of the study, over 1,600 cases of cancer were diagnosed.
Once researchers adjusted the results of their study to account for smoking habits and other variables, they found an increased total risk for cancer among patients with severe cases of periodontal disease when compared to patients with healthy gums or minor cases of gum disease.
Patients who had no remaining permanent teeth – a sign of severe gum disease – had a 28 percent higher risk for cancer.
Severe periodontitis appeared linked with a twofold increase for lung cancer among participants, even after researchers had adjusted for current and previous status as a smoker.
Based on 18 cases, the study found that severe gum disease may be linked with a fourfold increased risk for lung cancer among individuals who never smoked. Researcher found an increased risk for smoking-related cancers in the total study population, but not among study participants who had never smoked. This suggests the 18 identified cases were outliers more than suggesting a possible connection.
Protecting Your Oral Health
As researchers begin to better understand what connects our oral and overall health, the future promises to hold many breakthroughs that could help to lower cancer risk through earlier diagnosis.
“As evidence linking gum disease and cancer risk accumulates, and as science works to uncover the exact mechanisms, it is possible that we are headed toward a future where there might be an oral test for some cancers or, based on gum health, dentists would refer patients to their primary care physicians for cancer screenings,” wrote researchers.
However, before we reach a point were dentists like Dr. Greg Williams can help patients receive an earlier diagnosis for potential cancers, it’s important to remember that protecting your health and lowering your risk for cancer starts by taking better care of your oral health. Simple steps such as brushing and flossing daily can lower your risk for both gum disease and cancer. Now that’s certainly something to smile about.