Gum disease has been associated with a higher breast cancer incidence, in a recent study published on Monday, December 21 in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention.
Research was led by Jo Freudenheim, professor of epidemiology and environmental health, from the University at Buffalo’s School of Public Health and Health Professions.
Experts examined massive amounts of information, which had been aggregated during the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study.
Medical records pertaining to over 73,000 postmenopausal women were carefully scrutinized, so as to determine possible health conditions that can develop simultaneously with periodontal disease (commonly known as gum disease).
The least severe type of periodontal disease is gingivitis, which can easily be reversed through dental care, and manifests itself through inflammation, swelling and bleeding of the gums.
Its more dangerous version is periodontitis: as plaque builds up in the gums, the immune system goes in over-drive, attacking the infected tissues, causing teeth to become more weakly connected, until they eventually fall out.
Prior research had suggested that gum disease often occurs in conjunction with other more serious ailments, such as certain forms of cancer (affecting the lungs, esophagus, mouth, pancreas, head and neck), cardiovascular disease (stroke, heart failure etc.) and diabetes.
Now scientists wanted to see if women suffering from periodontal disease were also more prone to developing breast cancer.
Overall, around a quarter of the study participants had gum disease at the beginning of the trial: the condition was encountered among 47% of the active smokers, among 34% of the ex-smokers and among 23% of the non-smokers.
During a follow-up examination conducted 6 years and a half afterwards, it was discovered that 2,100 of the subjects had been diagnosed with malignant breast tumors.
By comparing data related to the two conditions, it was observed that women with gum issues were approximately 14% more susceptible to being affected by breast cancer.
While taking into account other potential triggers such as alcohol and cigarette use, sedentary lifestyles, excessive weight and advancing age, a correlation still remained, although risks linked to periodontal disorders were estimated to be around 11% higher in this case.
Moreover, when analyzing patients with gum disease against their cigarette smoking patterns, it was discovered that the highest probability of developing breast cancer was among those who had recently kicked the habit of smoking, this category of participants being around 36% more susceptible.
For those who still indulged in this routine, the likelihood of having a malignant breast tumor was around 32% more elevated, whereas women who had never smoked but suffered from periodontal issues were 6% more vulnerable to breast cancer than their counterparts who had healthy gums.
Study authors believe that one possible reason for this association is inflammation occurring throughout the body.
Past research has also shown that prolonged and excessive response from the immune system can trigger different types of cancer, so it could be that inflammation is responsible for gum disease and malignant breast tumors as well.
Gerard Linden, periodontology professor at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Island, has provided an alternative explanation, suggesting that pathogens from gum lesions may actually travel through the blood stream, reaching other parts of the body.
Since menopause disrupts hormonal levels, it may be that breast cells react abnormally to such oral bacteria, eventually turning cancerous.
While the study has revealed just an association, and not a cause and effect relationship, its authors recommend that women who have reached menopause should have routine dental visits, so as to ensure that they address gum disease in a timely fashion, thus potentially keeping more serious conditions at bay.
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