PORTRAIT IMAGES ASIA BY NONWARIT/ShutterstockYou brush, you see the dentist every so often. Maybe you don’t floss as much as you should, and sure, your gums seem a little sensitive and prone to bleed—what’s the big deal? Well, first brush up (ha) on your dental etiquette, because it may be lacking. And then prepare yourself for some grim news: According to a recent study published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, women with gum disease are more likely to develop cancer than those who have healthy teeth and gums.
According to perio.org, gum disease comes in many forms like gingivitis and periodontitis. Gingivitis is the precursor to periodontal disease, it’ll cause your gums to become red, swollen, and bleed easily (here are some other reasons your gums might be bleeding). You can control and even reverse the trouble with smart oral hygiene habits and seeing your dentist regularly (which means, don’t make these tooth brushing mistakes). Other conditions—diabetes, smoking, stress, a genetic predisposition, poor nutrition, and more—can increase your risk for gingivitis.
In the study, researchers examined records for approximately 66,000 postmenopausal women ranging in age from 54 to 86. These women were followed for eight years, and they reported any diagnosis of periodontal disease. When the researchers followed up, they found 7,100 of the women developed cancer. Women who had a history of periodontal disease were more than three times as likely to develop esophageal cancer. They were also two times likely to develop gallbladder cancer compared to women with no history of gum issues. Overall, their risk for breast cancer jumped 13 percent, skin melanomas 23 percent, and lung cancer by 31 percent.
Smoking and drinking increases risk of both gum disease and cancer, so the researchers separated out the risk for non-smokers. Non-smokers with gum disease still had a 12 percent increased risk of developing cancer overall.
The researchers aren’t sure why gum disease and cancer are linked, says the study’s senior author Jean Wactawski-Wende, PhD. However, gum disease can advance to periodontal disease, which means the inflammation around the tooth can create pockets around teeth that are magnets for food and bacteria. Over time, the inflammation and bacteria can lead to tooth loss.
Wactawski-Wende and her fellow researchers think that bacterial pathogens in the oral cavity may play a role. “These pathogens can travel to different parts of the body through your saliva, and they come in contact with your stomach and esophagus when you swallow, or end up in your lungs through aspiration,” says Dr. Wactawski-Wende.
The study authors say more research is needed to see if there are links and patterns to cancers that might be linked to gum disease. In the meantime, researchers recommend strongly that you brush, floss, and visit the dentist regularly. Want to know what dentists really think? Here are 11 things they would like you to know about your teeth.