It’s just brushing and flossing, right? Taking care of your teeth means a shiny white smile, fresh breath, and self-confidence. Now, research is showing that oral health goes far beyond a flashy grin. You may already know that gum disease can lead to serious infection and even death, but new studies link poor oral health to an increased risk of cancer in all areas of the body. Oral health and cancer risk are getting more attention. Here’s what you need to know.

An increase in bad oral bacteria may lead to stomach cancer

A study from Dr. Janne Lynch’s own alma mater, New York University College of Dentistry (NYU Dentistry) and New York University School of Medicine, found that a decrease in the variety of bacteria in the mouth (with a corresponding increase in bad bacteria) led to the formation of precancerous lesions that could indicate stomach cancer.

What does this mean to you? Yihong Li, DDS, MPH, DrPH, professor of basic science and craniofacial biology at NYU Dentistry and the study’s corresponding author puts it point-blank:

“Our study reinforces earlier findings that poor oral health is associated with an increased risk of precancerous lesions of stomach cancer.”

Previous studies had found that other risk factors caused cancer. These include H. pylori colonization, cigarette smoking, and eating salty and preserved foods.  This study found new cases that were unexplained by these risk factors.

Researchers found that study participants with more periodontal disease were more likely to have precancerous lesions that could lead to stomach cancer. Other predictors of stomach cancer include not flossing regularly and an increase in bad bacteria in the mouth.

Periodontal disease and esophageal cancer may be linked

The American Association for Cancer Research recently published results of a study that found the bad bacteria that leads to periodontal disease is the same bacteria associated with esophageal cancer. Esophageal cancer is the sixth leading cause of death by cancer worldwide. Because it often progresses undetected, the five-year survival rate is just 15 to 25%.

Jiyoung Ahn, PhD, an associate professor and associate director for population science at the Laura and Isaac Perlmutter Center at NYU Langone Health in New York, noted that:

“Esophageal cancer is a highly fatal cancer, and there is an urgent need for new avenues of prevention, risk stratification, and early detection. Our study indicates that learning more about the role of oral microbiota may potentially lead to strategies to prevent esophageal cancer, or at least to identify it at earlier stages.”

Gum disease may increase cancer risk

Poor oral health is related not only to esophageal and stomach cancer but also to an increased risk of all types of cancer. Epidemiologists Dominique Michaud at Tufts University School of Medicine and Elizabeth Platz of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Kimmel Cancer Center looked at comprehensive dental exams performed on 7,466 participants from Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, and North Carolina.

For study participants with severe periodontitis, the risk for cancer increased overall by 24%. This is an astonishing increase, but for individual cancers, the risk could be even higher.

  • Patients with severe periodontitis had double the risk of lung cancer than those with no or mild periodontitis
  • Edentulous participants (those with no teeth) had an 80% risk in the chance of colon cancer

To put this in perspective, lung cancer is the number one leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. Colon cancer is number two.

The study also controlled for lifestyle factors such as smoking. Elizabeth Platz, Sc.D., deputy chair of the department of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and co-leader of the Cancer Prevention and Control Program at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center pointed out that the increase was still there for never-smokers:

“When we looked at data for the people who had never smoked, we also found evidence that having severe periodontal disease was related to an increased risk of lung cancer and colorectal cancer.”

Bacteria that causes periodontitis linked to pancreatic cancer

Finally, another study in 2018 found that the same bacteria that causes periodontitis plays a part in the development of pancreatic cancer. A study of 70,000 people over a ten-year period found a strong link to pancreatic cancer in those study participants with periodontitis.

Periodontitis causes a low-grade, chronic inflammatory response in the body. Researchers believe that this inflammatory response facilitates the movement of bacteria to other parts of the body. In the study, Timo Sorsa, a professor at the University of Helsinki, showed the spread of bacteria to other parts of the body, saying:

“These studies have demonstrated for the first time that the virulence factors of the central pathogenic bacteria underlying gum disease are able to spread from the mouth to other parts of the body, most likely in conjunction with the bacteria, and take part in central mechanisms of tissue destruction related to cancer.”

What oral health and cancer research means for you

What this means to you, and to everyone around you, is simple. Good oral health translates to good health in general.

The benefits of twice-daily brushing and flossing go well beyond a sparkly clean smile and fresh breath. Good oral hygiene promotes overall good health by lowering the inflammation in your body and destroying cancer-related bacteria.

Good oral hygiene starts with a new patient examination. At this exam, your dentist will complete a thorough exam, including X-rays, and evaluate your overall oral health. After brushing and flossing your teeth, your dentist will make recommendations. If you don’t know how to properly brush and floss, your dentist or dental hygienist can help.

The research is there: oral health and cancer are linked. If you are concerned about your oral health and want more information to protect yourself, get in touch today!

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