Gum disease is not just a problem of the mouth – it can also mean a nearly 25 percent increase in the risk of developing cancer, according to a new study from Tufts University.
The study, performed by Tufts University School of Medicine, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Kimmel Cancer Center, is just one of many recent research projects that connect gum disease to a heightened risk of cancer and explore the relationship between gum disease and higher chances of developing lung and colorectal cancer.
Gum disease is caused by bacteria that infect and inflame the gums and can affect the bones and soft tissue of the teeth. The American Academy of Periodontology estimates that 47.2 percent of Americans age 30 or older have some form of gum disease.
“Periodontal disease is a widespread oral health problem and usually occurs because of poor oral health practices. Many patients do not know they even have a gum problem until things get very painful,” said Dr. Stefania Caracioni, L.V.I.F.
Caracioni is a Topeka dentist who sees patients with varying stages of gum disease.
“The first stage of gum disease is gingivitis. Patients with gingivitis may experience slight swelling and redness when their gums become inflamed. While gingivitis is treatable and even reversible, many patients ignore symptoms,” Caracioni said.
The next phase of gum disease is periodontitis, a more severe and more painful condition that causes bad breath, pain and inflammation.
“If periodontitis is not treated, then we get to advanced periodontal disease, and we see some very serious impacts in the mouth, such as loose or missing teeth, damage to soft tissues and even illnesses outside the mouth such as endocarditis,” said Caracioni.
The Tufts study used information collected from the dental exams of 7,466 patients from Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi and North Carolina who participated in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study. Participants were tracked from the late 1990s until 2012. During this period, 1,648 patients developed cancer.
Study findings revealed that individuals with periodontitis, a severe form of gum disease, had a 24 percent higher risk of developing cancer compared to participants who had mild or no evidence of periodontitis. Participants in the study who had periodontitis and had no teeth had a 28 percent greater chance of developing cancer.
Further analysis found that patients with severe cases of periodontal disease had more than double the chances of being diagnosed with lung cancer compared to participants with no or mild cases of periodontitis. Although smokers have an increased risk of developing periodontal disease and cancer, one key point to the Tufts study is that the risk of developing lung cancer was more significant even among participants who never smoked.
Patients with periodontitis and without teeth had an 80 percent higher risk of developing colon cancer than their peers with no or mild periodontitis.
The study is the largest to connect an increased risk of cancer and gum disease using information collected from dental exams before diagnosis. Researchers on the study hope that their research can help to develop treatment and prevention methods to lower the risk of developing cancer for patients with periodontal disease.
They also hope that their research can reduce the number of deaths associated with some forms of cancer. Lung cancers account for 13 percent of all new cancer diagnoses, with over 222,000 people diagnosed each year. Lung cancer is responsible for over 25 percent of cancer deaths every year.
There are over 140,000 colorectal cancer diagnoses each year. The American Cancer Society estimates that 50,000 people will die from colorectal cancer in 2018.
Tufts University, Health Sciences Campus. “More evidence of link between severe gum disease and cancer risk: In largest study to date using dental exams, severe periodontitis associated with 24 percent increased risk.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 16 January 2018.
American Academy of Periodontology. CDC: Half Of American Adults Have Periodontal Disease. 2018.