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Periodontal Disease Linked to an Increased Risk of Cancer in Women

A recent study by BMC Oral Health found that older women with periodontal disease were at a higher risk of developing certain cancers than women with healthy gums, even if the women with periodontal disease had never smoked.

The study followed nearly 66,000 women between the ages of 54 and 86, some of whom reported having gum disease. The researchers followed up with the women via survey over an eight-year period following the initial response. Those who initially reported having gum disease had 14 percent more cases of certain cancers than those who did not have gum disease.


"What’s interesting about these results are both the increase in risks of developing cancer as well as the variety of types of cancer," explains Dr. Michele Simpson of Wilmington, North Carolina. "We’re not talking about just oral cancers, but gallbladder cancer and melanoma, too."

In fact, the women with gum disease were 73 percent more likely to develop gallbladder cancer than those who did not have gum disease, and 23 percent more likely to have melanoma. Less surprising were the 33 percent higher risk of having esophageal cancer and 31 percent increased risk of having lung tumors.

"Cancers of the mouth and throat seem less alarming to me," Simpson says. "But melanoma is a skin cancer, and the gallbladder is a biliary gland."

So, why the connection between the gums and the rest of the body? Simpson believes there could be a few explanations.

"Many of the problems caused throughout the body by gum disease are due to inflammation," she says. "Inflammation can cause the body’s tissues to break down a lot faster, making it more susceptible to illness."

According to Simpson, the other explanation is that the bacteria that cause gum disease could be directly responsible - especially in the case of the esophagus, lungs and gallbladder.

"When you eat or swallow saliva, you are bringing some of that oral bacteria along for the ride, so it makes sense that if it’s very bad you could be damaging your lungs and esophagus," she says. "The gallbladder is a bile duct, which helps to digest and process fat. If you eat fatty foods and that bacteria in your saliva mixes with your food, it makes sense that the bacteria will eventually travel to your gallbladder."

The good news, according to Simpson, is that preventing advanced-stage gum disease is very easy if you brush twice a day and floss at least once a day.

"It’s estimated that 47 percent of adults have some stage of gum disease, but preventing gum disease and preventing it from worsening are actually really easy," Simpson says. "Don’t think that because you already have gum disease you’ve got a death sentence. With proper oral care, it’s never too late to reduce the inflammation and regain control of your health."

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