Puffy, Bleeding Gums Mean Gum Disease – and a Greater Risk of Some Cancers, Research Suggests

Think about what you can do to lower your risk of developing cancer. Things like healthy eating, exercise, and limiting exposure to EMFs and environmental toxins probably come to mind. And those are all helpful, to be sure.

man flossing teethBut many folks don’t realize that maintaining good oral health is a part of that, too – especially healthy gums.

This year alone, several new studies have highlighted the link between periodontal (gum) disease and cancer risk. Let’s take a brief look at what a selection of these have to say.

Two studies were reviews and meta-analyses – studies that give a big-picture view of the science by looking at previous similar studies and testing the pooled data from them. One involved the research on head and neck cancer risk – cancers that are often deadly unless discovered and treated early. Over 20 studies were included, which together showed a significant association between such cancers and gum disease.

“A diseased periodontium,” wrote the authors, meaning the gums and other tissues supporting the teeth,

represents an independent risk marker, and a putative risk factor, for [head and neck cancer].

The other review focused on lung cancer and included 8 studies involving more than 167,000 people. Some were cohort studies, in which exposure to risk factors is followed in a large group of people over time to help determine possible causes of a disease. Others were case-control studies, which compare groups of people both with and without a disease to determine the relative risk between exposure and disease – in this case, gum disease and lung cancer.

Both types showed a significant relationship between the two.

Two other studies investigated potential relationships between other cancers and periodontal health. One very large study published in Gut found that gum disease meant a 43% greater risk of esophageal cancer and 52% greater risk of stomach cancer. The risks were even higher for patients once they began to lose teeth – a consequence of severe gum disease.

In a news release, the authors offered some possibilities as to why this might occur, including the presence of periodontal pathogens (“bad bugs”) such as P. gingivalis and T. forsythia in the case of esophageal cancer.

Another possible reason is that poor oral hygiene and periodontal disease could promote the formation of endogenous nitrosamines known to cause gastric cancer through nitrate-reducing bacteria.

The risk of developing certain types of precancerous cells in the colon also appears to be greater for people with gum disease. A study in Cancer Prevention Research, involving data from more than 42,000 individuals, found that gum disease meant a 17% greater risk of serrated polyps and an 11% greater risk of conventional adenomas. And as in the Gut study, those with periodontally related tooth loss were at even greater risk.

Similarly, its authors suggest that oral bacteria may explain the why of this relationship, insofar as they trigger uncontrolled inflammation and immune dysregulation.

And, indeed, chronic inflammation is the common denominator here, linking gum disease not only with cancer but a host of other systemic conditions, including stroke, diabetes, heart disease, cognitive decline, rheumatoid arthritis, and kidney disease.

While more research is needed to determine whether controlling gum disease will necessarily lower your risk of developing these or any other cancers, they can serve as good motivation to keep up your home care – brushing, flossing, oil pulling, and using a Waterpik – and making regular visits to your dentist.

Who knows? It just might wind up saving your life.

Image by Marco Verch, Creative Commons 2.0

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