Study suggests poor oral health could lessen survival from head and neck cancer

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An international study has revealed strong associations between oral health and survival among people diagnosed with head and neck cancer. 

Specifically, better oral health, as evidenced by the number of natural teeth and dental visits prior to the time of diagnosis, was associated with increased survival. Importantly, those who had more frequent dental visits were more likely to have their cancer diagnosed at an earlier, and less deadly, stage of the disease than those who had few or no dental visits.

The study is published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

“The INHANCE consortium’s patient data allowed us to be as thorough as possible and identify robust associations between oral health and survival,” lead author Jason Tasoulas said. 

“We assembled a diverse and experienced team to examine records of approximately 2500 patients from eight countries to carry out our state-of-the-art statistical analyses.”

Head and neck cancer patients were asked to self-report aspects of their oral health and hygiene, including gum bleeding, tooth brushing frequency and mouthwash use, as well as the number of natural teeth and frequency of dental visits they had during a 10-year period prior to their cancer diagnosis.

Those who had frequent dental visits (more than five visits in a reported decade) had higher overall survival at five and 10 years compared to those with no dental visits. This finding was most pronounced among people with cancers of the oropharynx, which consists of the structures in the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue, tonsils and soft palate.

Having no natural remaining teeth was associated with a 15 per cent lower five-year overall survival compared to those with more than 20 natural teeth. Survival differences of less than five per cent, which were not significant, were found for patient-reported gum bleeding, tooth brushing and mouthwash use.

This is an important study that highlights the interplay between oral health and head and neck squamous cell carcinoma and overall survival. It points out features of a history and examination that are associated with survival. Additionally, it may lead us down the road of prevention of these cancers.

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