Gum disease is a chronic infection that can have far-reaching consequences. It is the leading cause of tooth loss among American adults, but beyond that it’s been linked to heart disease and dementia. Now a new study is showing that strong evidence links gum disease to an elevated risk of cancer.
This is strong evidence of the overall health benefits of maintaining good oral health.
Linking Gum Disease and Cancer
For this study, researchers looked at patients participating in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study. In 1996, about 7500 people in the study were examined for gum disease in 1996-97. Researchers looked at their medical records for an average of about 15 years after the exams.
They found that these participants developed a total of 1648 cancers during the follow-up period and 547 died of cancer.
Analyzing the people who developed cancer, they found that having severe gum disease was linked to a 24% increase in cancer risk, after adjusting for known cancer risk factors, including smoking. They also found that some types of cancer were more strongly linked to gum disease. People with severe gum disease were more than twice as likely to develop lung cancer and colorectal cancer.
No statistical association was found with other types of cancer, such as breast, prostate, or blood cancers.
This is not the first study to link gum disease with cancer risk. Other studies have shown increased risk of lung cancer, breast cancer, throat cancer, and pancreatic cancer. Furthermore, we know of several potential mechanisms that could link gum disease to cancer.
How Gum Disease Might Increase Cancer Risk
There are three potential ways that there could be a meaningful link between gum disease and these cancers. One is that there’s an indirect genetic connection. Both gum disease and cancer risk have genetic risk factors. It could be that these risk factors are common between the two conditions.
But it’s also likely that gum disease influences cancer risk more directly. First, it’s possible that systemic inflammation is the link. Because gum disease is a chronic infection, it triggers a prolonged immune response in your body. There is some evidence that this prolonged immune response could be linked to cancer risk.
It’s also possible that gum disease bacteria are shielding these cancers from your immune system. In order to survive in our body, oral bacteria develop mechanisms that protect them from our immune system, and studies have shown that these mechanisms can shield cancer cells as well. This gives small tumors time to become too large for the immune system to handle.
Gum Disease Can Threaten Your Life
This study shows us that gum disease isn’t just a threat to your teeth, it’s a threat to your life. Add this to risks of heart disease linked to gum disease and you can see why it’s critical to maintain your oral health.