Oral Health and Colorectal Cancer Risk?

In a study, researchers found an association between periodontal disease, tooth loss, and conditions associated with colorectal cancer. 

Could the health of your mouth and your teeth have anything to do with your chances of developing colorectal cancer?  New research suggests the answer may be “yes.”

Evidence has been building that the presence of periodontal disease is associated with several types of cancer. Scientists at Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital focused their attention on colorectal cancer, the second-leading cause of cancer death (after lung cancer) in the United States. 

The researchers examined two conditions that often serve as precursors to colorectal cancer: benign tumors called adenomas, and tiny growths known as serrated polyps because they have a sawtooth appearance under the microscope.  Using a large, long-term database of healthcare workers who volunteered information (on an anonymous basis), the researchers compared diagnosis of these conditions to the presence of periodontal diseases and loss of teeth. 

Overall, people who had periodontal disease had a 17 percent higher risk of developing serrated polyps or conventional adenomas. Those who had lost four or more teeth had a 20 percent higher risk of developing serrated polyps.  

The more teeth a person lost, the higher risk they had of advanced conventional adenomas. Those who had lost one to three teeth had a 28 percent higher chance of developing advanced conventional adenomas, while those who had lost four or more teeth had a 36 percent higher risk. 

What’s the connection between the mouth and the colon? 

“The oral cavity harbors a wide array of microbial communities,” said Mingyang Song, MD, ScD, assistant professor of clinical epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Various factors, including poor oral hygiene, genetic susceptibility, smoking, diabetes, and obesity, can result in an excess of oral pathogens that may induce host inflammation and immune dysregulation.”

What does it mean for people concerned about their risk of cancer? 

“Having ever been diagnosed with periodontal disease puts a person at risk of colorectal precursor lesions, some of which may eventually lead to colorectal cancer,” Song said.  “Regular screening colonoscopy and lifestyle modifications are particularly important in this population.”

What can you do?

Experts say you can improve your chance of avoiding periodontal disease by brushing your teeth after meals, flossing at least once a day, using mouthwash, and getting regular care from a dentist or periodontist.