The question

If left untreated, gum disease can damage the tissue and bone that support the teeth, resulting in tooth loss. Might there be connection between gum disease — known as periodontal disease — and other health problems?

This study

The researchers analyzed health data on 65,869 postmenopausal women (average age, 68). In about an eight-year period, 7,149 developed some type of cancer. Those whose dental history included periodontal disease were 14 percent more likely to have developed cancer than were women who had not had gum disease, regardless of whether the women had ever smoked. This included greater risk for breast, lung, gallbladder and melanoma skin cancer. Highest risk was for esophageal cancer: Women with a history of gum disease were three times as likely to have developed this cancer. The researchers wrote that the "precise mechanisms through which periodontal disease may promote cancer remain to be determined," but they noted that ­disease-causing agents might make their way from the area of gum disease to other parts of the body through blood or swallowed saliva or simply by breathing in.

Who may be affected?

Older women who have had periodontal disease. In its mildest form, called gingivitis, plaque buildup along the gumline causes the gums to become inflamed and bleed. Consistent oral-health care — daily brushing and flossing and periodic cleanings by a dentist or dental hygienist — usually can reverse the condition and prevent future problems. However, gingivitis can progress to periodontitis, with more-severe infection and damage to the bone and tissue that hold teeth in place, sometimes requiring the removal of teeth.

Caveats

What the study found was an association between periodontal disease and cancer; it did not prove that gum disease causes cancer. The findings might not apply to men. Most participants were white. Data on the women's dental history came from their responses on questionnaires. One of the nine authors of the study had received a grant and speaking and consulting fees from companies that produce oral-health products.

Find this study

August issue of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention (cebp.aacrjournals.org; click on "From the Current Issue")

Learn more

Information on periodontal disease is available at nidcr.­nih.gov (click on "Oral Health") and perio.org (click on "Patient Resources").

The research described in Quick Study comes from credible, peer-reviewed journals.