Gum disease, also known as periodontal disease or periodontitis, has been linked to a number of chronic diseases including heart disease, stoke and diabetes. There is now evidence that there’s also a link to breast cancer.

In a Periodontal Disease and Breast Cancer study published in December 2015, Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, researchers found that postmenopausal women who have gum disease are more likely to develop breast cancer than those that didn’t have gum disease. The risk of breast cancer also increased if the woman had a history of smoking.

Gum Disease And Breast Cancer: Who’s At Risk?

This study involved 73,737 postmenopausal women who had never previously been diagnosed with breast cancer, and looked at the rates of breast cancer in the group after approximately six and a half years.

Postmenopausal women are more at risk of breast cancer; about 1 out of 8 invasive breast cancers are found in women younger than 45, whereas about 2 of 3 invasive breast cancers are found in women age 55 or older.

Smokers may also have a higher risk of developing breast cancer, with some studies linking long-term heavy smoking to breast cancer, and other studies showing evidence of a higher risk in younger, premenopausal women.

We already know that smokers are more likely to suffer from gum disease and that periodontitis in smokers is more difficult to treat. This is because smoking reduces blood circulation to the mouth and therefore inhibits the classic symptoms of gum disease such as bleeding gums. Furthermore bad breath is a side effect of being a smoker and an important sign of gum disease that can go undetected in smokers. This makes diagnosing and catching gum disease early more problematic in smokers. Treatment is also less effective because smoking adversely affects your mouth’s ability to heal.

Because of this established linked between gum disease and smoking, this most recent study grouped the women by their smoking history. The results are interesting:

  • Women who had never smoked but have gum disease had a 6% higher risk of breast cancer, than those women who didn’t have periodontitis,
  • Women who gave up smoking more than 20 years previously and have gum disease had a 8% higher risk of breast cancer, than those women who didn’t have periodontitis,
  • Women who had stopped smoking within the last 20 years and have gum disease had a 36% higher risk of breast cancer than women who didn’t have periodontitis.

The study didn’t provide a risk factor for current smokers though they will have the same 36% risk, or an even greater risk, as the women in the latter group.

Why The Link Between Gum Disease And Breast Cancer?

Understanding why bacteria in one area of the body may influence diseases in other areas of the body is a new area of research, and therefore the reasons why this may be are speculative at the moment. However, researchers involved in the above study have suggested the following possible reasons as to why there is a link between gum disease and breast cancer:

  1. The bacteria in the mouth that causes gum disease can enter the bloodstream as a result of bleeding gums. Although bacteria is cleaned out by the body quickly the cumulative effect of exposure because of untreated periodontal disease could potentially affect breast cancer.
  2. There’s an established link between inflammation and infection in one area of the body impacting on other diseases.
  3. Other factors may also increase the risk of breast cancer in women with gum disease.

What To Do If You Think You’re At Risk

Researchers in the study are not yet in a position to say that ‘if you treat gum disease you will reduce your chances of developing breast cancer’, however it makes sense to do everything you can to keep your risk low.

As my experience is in oral hygiene and treating periodontal disease, the advice below is to help you take control of this particular risk factor:

Learn how to keep your teeth and gums healthy: Many people don’t brush or floss correctly missing areas of their mouth and not effectively removing the bacteria that can cause gum disease. Next time you visit your dentist ask for a lesson! In my dental practice we have a ‘Tell, Show, Do’ approach to brushing where we check that patients are brushing effectively at every check up.

Visit your dentist regularly: Don’t wait until you know you have a problem, regular check ups prevent and detect oral health issues developing.

Watch out for the following signs: Red or inflamed gums; sore or bleeding gums; bad breath or an unpleasant permanent taste in your mouth; loose teeth; receding gums exposing the root of the tooth; sensitivity. If you have any of these symptoms talk to your dentist.

Invest in some preventative measures: Toothbrushes should be replaced every 3 months, and more frequently if you have any oral hygiene issues. Floss and interdentals should form part of your regular brushing regime. A GumSaver two-pronged toothbrush can be used daily in the treatment of gum disease, and also as a preventative tool a few times a week.

Stop smoking: Not easy, but the results from the Periodontal Disease and Breast Cancer study give smokers even more reason to quit the habit and take control of your wellbeing. Support can be found here.

If you have any questions about gum disease and oral hygiene, or the subjects raised in this blog post, please leave a comment below. Alternatively you can email me directly: