Study finds postmenopausal women with gum disease may have increased cancer risk

Researchers found that older women with a history of periodontal disease may be more at risk for site-specific cancers, including esophageal and gallbladder cancer.

In addition to causing swollen gums, loose and sensitive teeth, and bad breath, gum disease has been linked to a greater risk of breast cancer in postmenopausal women. New research out of the University at Buffalo shows that postmenopausal women who have a history of periodontal disease may also be at a greater risk of developing a number of cancers, including site-specific ones like esophageal and gallbladder cancer.

The prospective cohort study was comprised of 65,869 postmenopausal women ages 54 to 86 who were enrolled in the Women’s Health Initiative, a long-term national health study focused on strategies for preventing heart disease, breast and colorectal cancer, and osteoporotic fractures in postmenopausal women. Most of the participants were non-Hispanic white women. According to the study, periodontal disease information was obtained via self-report questionnaires administered between 1999 and 2003, and ascertainment of cancer outcomes occurred through September 2013 with a maximum follow-up period of 15 years.

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During a mean follow-up of 8.32 years, 7,149 cancers were identified. The researchers discovered that periodontal disease was associated with an increased total cancer risk. Women who reported a history of gum disease had a 14 percent increased risk of overall cancer. The majority of the cancers, about 2,416, were breast cancer. Other high risk cancers included esophageal, gallbladder and melanoma. Stomach cancer was found to be a borderline risk.

The researchers found similar results in a group of 34,097 women who had never smoked.

“Periodontal disease increases risk of total cancer among older women, irrespective of smoking, and certain anatomic sites appear to be vulnerable,” the study states. “Our findings support the need for further understanding of the fact of periodontal disease on cancer outcomes.”

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While the study showed a correlation between gum disease in postmenopausal women and an increased cancer risk, the American Dental Association notes some concerns with the conclusions made by the researchers.

“The study found that self-report of gum disease among postmenopausal women was associated with variation in the prevalence of several cancers,” says an ADA spokesperson. “As a retrospective study, the findings provide no insight about modifiable cancer risk. Further, there were important differences between the women who reported that they did and did not have gum disease. In addition, self-report of gum disease is prone to misclassification. While the reported findings may sound intriguing, there are several statistical and methodological concerns with the study, meaning that the conclusions drawn are speculative.”

The full study, titled “Periodontal Disease and Incident Cancer Risk among Postmenopausal Women: Results from the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Cohort,” appeared in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention.