As an Aloha dentist, Dr. Bronitsky makes it her goal to better inform and educate all of her patients on the dangers associated with poor oral health. While many people think that poor oral health only has to do with the state of their teeth and gums, research has shown that’s simply not true.
Over the years, researchers have found significant connections between tooth decay, gum disease, and tooth loss with a number of chronic health problems that include heart disease, stroke, dementia, and, most alarmingly, cancer. In fact, a recent UK study found that patients who reported as having poor oral health, such as loose teeth or bleeding gums, had a 75 percent higher risk for developing liver cancer.
While earlier studies have established a connection between poor oral health and cancer, this study marks the first time researchers have successfully established a link to a specific type of gastrointestinal cancer.
The results of the study were published in the most recent issue of the United European Gastroenterology Journal.
Cancer’s Link to Gum Disease
Cancers of the digestive system, also referred to gastrointestinal cancers, rank as a major problem worldwide. One global study found that roughly 28 percent of new cancer cases and 37 percent of cancer deaths were due to gastrointestinal cancer in 2018.
Unfortunately, the number people diagnosed with digestive cancers continues to rise. Among older populations, researchers believe a number of behavioral and environmental factors may actually play a role in the increased prevalence of these diseases.
While additional research has connected poor oral health with digestive cancers, the extent to which nutrition, alcohol use, and smoking play a role in increasing a person’s risk remains unclear.
Digestive system cancers include a wide range that include cancers of the liver, rectum, colon, small intestine, stomach, pancreas, and esophagus.
As part of their study, researchers examined data collected as part of the U.K. Biobank project. The final dataset involved in the study encompassed more than 490,000 adults from all across the U.K. who were between the ages of 40 to 69.
The team omitted any information on individuals that fail to report sufficient information regarding their oral health or who had a history of cancer prior to joining the study.
In all, the research team examined the health records of over 469,000 people, among whom just over 4,000 developed gastrointestinal cancer over an average six-year follow-up period.
Of the study participants who developing a digestive cancer, 13 percent had reported experiencing poor oral health when the study first started.
After examining other information provided by the study participants, researchers discovered that those who reported poor oral health were more likely to be obese, female, and younger in age. They were also less likely to be nonsmokers and to eat more than two servings of fresh fruits and vegetables a day.
For the purposes of the study, researchers defined poor oral health as bleeding gums, painful gums, and/or having lost teeth.
The Risk of Liver Cancer
An analysis of the data collected in the study found no connection between gastrointestinal cancer risk and poor oral health.
However, when researchers examined cancer of specific organ types, they did find links between poor oral health and hepatobiliary cancers, which are those that develop in the bile, ducts, gallbladder, or liver.
The strongest association found by researchers was between poor oral health and hepatocellular carcinoma, the most common form of liver cancer.
The data found that having poor oral health was linked to a 75 percent higher risk for developing this type of liver cancer.
Cases of liver cancer in the U.S. have more than tripled since 1980, according to the American Cancer Society.
The ACS estimates that over 42,000 people will receive a liver cancer diagnosis, and over 31,000 people will die of the disease in 2019.
An Unclear Connection
Despite their findings, researchers remain uncertain of what mechanism connects oral health to liver cancer so strongly while not increasing the risk of other types of digestive cancers. As one possible explanation, researchers suggest that stomach bacteria may offer some insight. Potentially, when diseases such as cancer or hepatitis hit the liver, the impair its function to fight bacteria throughout the body. This in turn allows bacteria to live for longer, thereby causing more problems and damage to the body.
However, what this and other research has helped to reinforce is just how important our oral health, and scheduling regular visits to see an Aloha dentist, means to protecting our health long term.