Over the past year or so, there’s been a lot more talk in conventional dental circles about the relationship between oral health and physical health, much of it focusing on the demonstrated links between periodontal (gum) disease and inflammatory conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. One of the links we’ve heard less about – at least in the popular media – is that between oral health and cancer.
A little over a year ago, a study published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention cast some light on this relationship, looking to the effect of chronic periodontitis on head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC). As gum disease in its most severe form leads to bone loss in the jaw, researchers measured the amount of alveolar bone loss. (This is the bone that secures the teeth in their sockets.) Even after adjusting for factors such as smoking, alcohol use and missing teeth, they found that for each additional millimeter of bone loss, an individual’s risk of developing HNSCC increased by more than four fold, with the strongest association occurring in the oral cavity. The scientists concluded that chronic gum disease may well be an independent risk factor for HNSCC. Smoking may raise the risk even more, considering that it aggravates alveolar bone loss.
Because the alveolar bone is the fundamental structure that keeps teeth in the mouth, as it erodes, the individual becomes more susceptible to losing their teeth. There’s simply not enough bone to hold them in place. This is something we’ve known about for some time, but there’s continued interest in understanding the progress of gum disease, as well as the impact of risk factors such as smoking even after the the person has quit.
Along these lines, a sobering study was just published in the Journal of the American Dental Association, in which researchers looked at the long term effects of smoking and tooth loss among older adults. Unsurprisingly, current and former smokers both showed a much higher rate of tooth loss than those who had never smoked. Surprisingly, though risk declined significantly once individuals quit smoking, their risk remained elevated even after 30 smoke-free years.
For those who still think smoking makes you look cool or sexy, you might want to think about how cool you’d look without teeth or how sexy when taking out dentures each night before going to bed.
Yet another reason to quit the smokes – or never start in the first place.
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