A study found gum disease could heighten breast cancer risks among postmenopausal women, especially among smokers. Findings showed a 14 percent overall increase in breast cancer risk among female gum disease patients. Smoking women, including those who smoked in the last 20 years, have an overall increased risk of 32 percent.

Lead study author Jo Freudenheim, an epidemiology professor at the School of Public Health and Health Professions in the University at Buffalo, said the findings could help in studying breast cancer causes. However, further studies are needed to conclude that gum disease causes the illness. Several experts, who were not involved in the research, noted that the findings do not prove a cause-and-effect association between the two illnesses.

Freudenheim noted that there is much to study about the links that emerged between gum disease, smoking and breast cancer. One of which is whether treating gum disease would lessen the risk of developing breast cancer or other diseases.

"It could be that periodontal disease means there's kind of a general inflammation in the body. Inflammation is related to a number of cancers and stroke and heart disease, so it could be that chronic inflammation is causing both," said Freudenheim.

Smoking, Gum Disease and Breast Cancer Associations

The research team analyzed the data of about 74,000 postmenopausal women enrolled in the Women's Health Initiative study. When the research started, none of the women involved had a history of breast cancer.

Freudenheim's team followed up on the women for nearly seven years wherein over 2,000 women received a breast cancer diagnosis. Women who smoked during the study's timeline and had gum disease, have a 32 percent increased breast cancer risk.

For those who quit smoking within the past 20 years and had gum disease, the risk was 36 percent greater. Non-smoking women who had gum disease carry a six percent increased risk. Lastly, women who kicked the habit over 20 years before but had gum disease carry an eight percent increased risk.

Overall, women with gum disease have a 14 percent increased risk for breast cancer compared to women without it. After adjusting for several other breast cancer risk factors such as weight, age, fitness level, smoking habit and alcohol intake, the added risk dropped to 11 percent.

American Cancer Society's deputy chief medical officer Dr. Leonard Lichtenfeld also cautioned that gum disease could be an indicator of overall poor health and not a definite breast cancer cause. The study was published in the Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention journal on Dec. 21.

Photo: Tess Heder | Flickr

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