Dental plaque linked to early cancer deaths

By Chelsea Whyte on June 12, 2012 3:11 PM EDT

Toothbrush
Brushing and flossing may do more than just brighten your pearly whites - it could lower your risk of early cancer death. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Your dentist's constant admonition to floss may not only save your teeth, it could save your life. 

High levels of dental plaque - the film of bacteria that covers the surfaces of teeth and gums - led to a 79 percent higher chance of premature cancer death in a 24-year observational study of nearly 1,400 people, according to a study published by researchers at the Karolinska Institute and the University of Helsinki.

By the end of the study period, 58 participants had died, 35 of those from cancer.  And when researchers looked at their oral health, they found that those who had died had higher levels of dental plaque than the survivors. According to demographic data the deceased women were expected to live 13 years longer and the men might have had an additional 8.5 years, so their deaths are considered premature, said the authors.  

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These results come from a randomly selected group of Swedish participants in their 30s and 40s, who were given a dental exam in 1985 to record the levels of plaque, gum disease and tooth loss they had. Anyone with pre-existing periodontal disease, such as gingivitis, was excluded. Participants were also asked about behaviors that can affect cancer risk, including smoking.

The findings held true even when researchers took into account other factors known to increase cancer risk. Though this is only an association, and not a causal effect, the study raises questions about the connections between inflammation-causing plaque and cancer-related deaths.

"Bacteria in the gums may trigger local inflammation, and these bacteria and inflammatory markers don't just stay where they are," said Dr. Joel Epstein, director of oral medicine at the City of Hope Cancer Center in Duarte, Calif, according to U.S. News & World Report. "They are measurable in the blood, so it becomes systemic and widely distributed."

Up to one in five cancers are driven by some inflammatory process, but the authors caution that more research needs to be done to establish dental plaque as a contributor to cancer risk.

"We don't know if dental plaque could be a real causal part of cancer," lead author Birgitta Soder told Time. "But it is a little scary to see that something we all have in our mouths can play such a role."

Paul Pharoah, a lecturer in cancer epidemiology at the University of Cambridge in England, told Businessweek, "Although some factors were controlled for, there are very likely to be other factors, such as diet and obesity, that would be associated with both plaque and mortality."

Though dental plaque can't yet be determined to be a contributor to cancer, it may still act as a marker for those at risk. 

© 2012 iScience Times All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.

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