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Does Gum Disease Cause Cancer?

It took a lot of lectures from my dentist, but I long ago became a dedicated flosser. Now a new study is making me glad I did. And it's not just because flossing my teeth daily may help me avoid dentures. The new research indicates that people who have gum disease may be at increased risk for cancer.

Cancer? How could gum disease increase the risk for cancer? Well, previous research has found a possible link between gum disease and other illnesses, such as heart disease and diabetes. The thinking is that inflammation in the gums may lead to inflammation in other parts of the body, which can damage arteries supplying blood to the heart and other parts of the body. Some studies had also suggested a link to cancer, which may also be caused in part by inflammation.

To explore that, Dominique Michaud of the Imperial College London and colleagues analyzed data collected by the Health Professionals Follow-up study, a Harvard project that, in 1986, began tracking thousands of male doctors and other health professionals ages 40 to 75. Michaud and his colleagues looked at data collected from 48,375 men who were followed for up to nearly 18 years.

After taking into consideration factors that might confuse the findings, such as smoking and diet, the researchers report in the June issue of the journal Lancet Oncology that that those who had gum disease had a 14 percent higher risk of cancer compared to those with no history of gum disease.

The risk varied from cancer to cancer. Gum disease appeared to increase the risk for lung cancer by 36 percent, for kidney cancer by 49 percent, for pancreatic cancer by 54 percent and for white blood cancers such as leukemia by 30 percent.

The researchers say the findings need to be confirmed by additional studies. And scientists need to figure out how exactly gum disease may be linked to cancer.

But in the meantime I'm going to make sure I keep up my flossing.

By Rob Stein  |  May 29, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Cancer  
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