Research being carried out into the links between tooth decay and the risks of developing head and neck cancer has thrown up some fascinating information revolving around the fact that people with tooth cavities might actually be less likely to develop cancer in their head and neck. The research was carried out by Dr. Mine Tezal, an assistant professor at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, and the results were published in ‘JAMA Otolaryngology — Head & Neck Surgery’. The results were surprising since past studies had shown that other forms of poor oral health, such as periodontal disease, tended to point towards an increased risk of developing tumours in the head and neck.
Cavities or cancer – a fair choice? Whilst most people’s interaction with the world of dentistry will extend only as far as visiting a dental implant clinic to have a missing tooth replaced, research such as this demonstrates the important part which good oral health has to play in maintaining overall high standards of health. A finding which links cavities with a lower chance of cancer is, of course, going to prompt an initial response that it’s possible to choose between the two but the truth is that they are both things to be avoided. Dr Tezal says as much, pointing out that the key to good health is to maintain a healthy diet, and brush and floss regularly.
The Research: The research involved 399 patients with head and neck cancers, who were compared to 221 who didn’t have any such cancers. It was found that the people with the most cavities were 32 per cent less likely to have developed cancer in the head and neck. This was something which still held even when other factors such as smoking, drinking alcohol, gender and marital status were taken into account. The link was thought to be down to the fact that cavities are caused by lactic acid eating into the enamel of the teeth. This acid is produced by bacteria such as streptococci, lactobacilli, actinomycetes and bifidobacteria, the same kind of bacteria which are often used in the production of yoghurt. Dr. Tezal pointed out that these bacteria have a role to play in human digestion and immunity and that people with low levels ran an increased risk of allergies, obesity, cancer and inflammatory problems. It was felt, then, that it was these bacteria themselves, rather than the cavities which they helped to cause, which were the factor helping to prevent the occurrence of head and neck cancer. Dr. Tezal described the cavities as ‘collateral damage’ and said that strategies for the future should revolve around taking advantage of the positive effects of the bacteria whilst protecting against the prevalence of tooth decay. As if to underline this finding, another study carried out by Dr Tezal found a link between periodontitis, commonly known as gum disease, and an increased risk of head and neck cancer. The study, which took place at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, involved 463 patients and found that chronic periodontitis increased the risk of developing cancer, particularly in the mouth. Although other factors such as smoking and over consumption of alcohol were also high risk factors, this finding still underlined the good sense of maintaining the highest possible levels of oral hygiene.
Taken together, the two findings may seem somewhat contradictory, but they merely make it plain that there is a strong link between good dental hygiene and overall good health. You don’t need to choose between cavities and cancer, you simply have to eat a healthy diet, keep your gums and teeth clean and pay regular visits to your dentist for a check-up.