Affluence of dental plaque may be linked to cancer mortality

Adhering to the demands of proper oral hygiene can make for more than just a pretty smile — it may even render a longer life without a cancerous end, a new study suggests.  

The scientific community is still bristling over the findings of a recently released longitudinal study — conducted by researchers at the Karolinska Institute and the University of Helsinki, located in Sweden and Finland respectively — which managed to link dental plaque buildup to cancer mortality. Over the course of a 24-year study period, researchers found that subjects with particularly high levels of dental plaque were 80 percent more likely to meet a premature death proliferated by cancer than those who had low levels of bacterial biofilm accrual.

A participant pool of 1,390 healthy, young Swedes was randomly selected to report for routine oral clinical examinations and respond to questionnaires designed to glean information about possible background variables such as smoking, from the year 1985 to 2009. Those people displaying indicators of periodontal disease were disregarded from the study. Of those 1,390 participants, 58 died over the total study span, 35 from cancer specifically.

Approximately 6.9 percent of all women involved in the study had died from cancer, at the mean age of 61, by the year 2009 and 4 percent of men, at the mean age of 60, had lost their battles with the disease by the study’s close. Demographic data estimated the women would have lived about 13 years longer and the men, 8.5 years longer — their deaths were thus dubbed premature. Breast cancer was the predominant caste of neoplasm for female deaths, whereas males fell victim to a more scattered range of malignancies.

The amount of tartar and plaque accumulation present within oral cavities of the 35 deceased was far more apparent and significant than that within the mouths of study subjects who lived. When researchers controlled for common factors recognized for their role in increasing cancer mortality risk, their findings remained the same.

“The association between dental plaque on tooth surfaces and cancer surprised and scared me,” said Birgitta Söder, a member of the department of dental sciences at the Karolinska Institute and lead author of the study, when prompted about the nature of the results.

Although the research was unable to provide an explicit explanation as to why increased dental plaque correlated with cancer death, Söder and other experts are attributing the nexus to oral inflammation.

"Bacteria in the gums may trigger local inflammation, and these bacteria and inflammatory markers don't just stay where they are," Joel Epstein, MD, director of oral medicine at the City of Hope Cancer Center in Duarte, Calif. told HealthDay News. "They are measurable in the blood, so it becomes systemic and widely distributed."

Regarding inflammatory concerns, Söder spoke not only of the pivotal part that dentists and dental hygienists must assume in “educat[ing] patients about the role dental plaque plays for oral inflammation,” which “can spread to the bloodstream,” but also the necessity for physicians to help in dispersing the information as well.

“I think that physicians should also think about increasing knowledge regarding the association between oral health and public health and, when it is well-founded, encourage patients to practice proper oral hygiene,” she said. “Increased knowledge of the association between oral health and public health is aimed to identify patients at risk and, by giving prophylactic treatment to individuals, it could be possible to prevent systemic complications.”

Due to the fact that the study uses observations as the crux for its analysis, Söder and her team cannot claim for certain that dental plaque is a cause of cancer. Nevertheless, the allegations the study puts forth are not to be easily brushed-off, according to Epstein.

"This is interesting and impactful data that broadens the whole view of not being able to separate the mouth from other body parts," he said.

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