Half of all adults in the United States have periodontal disease. A new study, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, suggests these patients have more to worry about than splotches of blood in the sink after brushing.

The report, Periodontal Disease Assessed Using Clinical Dental Measurements and Cancer Risk in the ARIC Study, showed that patients with severe periodontal disease have a 24% increased risk of developing cancer over 15 years.

Importantly, while most patients with periodontal disease won't go on to be diagnosed with cancer, the study highlights the need to consider oral health in conjunction with the remainder of a patient's overall health.

"Cancer is just one of the outcomes that are linked to gum disease, but there are many others – diabetes, stroke, possibly premature birth," the study's lead author, Dominique S. Michaud, ScD, Professor of Public Health and Community Medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine, told 90.9 WBUR, Boston's NPR station.

The study evaluated 7,466 patients involved in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study, a prospective study designed to determine risk factors associated with cardiovascular diseases. At the start of the study, all participants received a dental exam, which included probings to determine periodontal disease.

Approximately 15 years later, those patients who had periodontal disease when initially examined were 24% more likely to have developed cancer for the first time, compared to their counterparts without gum disease. The association remained, even when the researchers controlled for smoking, a known risk factor for both periodontal disease and cancer. The association was strongest for lung and colorectal cancers.

One of the key strengths of the study was that it did not rely on self-reports of periodontal disease or missing teeth, but on actual dental exams. Nonetheless, there are multiple techniques for assessing the extent of periodontal disease, and the JNCI study highlights the need for standardizing this measure.

– Emma Yasinski

[Also in this issue, see Drill-and-Fill no more? Silver Diamine Fluoride could become the new standard of care for caries]

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