Tooth cavities may protect you from cancer

Critic says relationship between cavities, cancer is not 'cause and effect'

Topics: Oncology, Service Lines, Behavioral Health

September 16, 2013

Looking for an upside to the dentist finding cavities? Patients with cavities may be less likely to develop some head and neck cancers, according to a study in JAMA Otolaryngology—Head & Neck Surgery.

For the study, State University of New York researchers evaluated 399 patients with head and neck cancers and compared them to 221 patients without cancer. The researchers found that the patients with the most cavities were 32% less likely to have head and neck cancer than patients with few or no cavities—even after factors such as tobacco use and lifestyle were taken into account.

The lactic acid bacteria produced by cavities—which is similar to bacteria cultures in yogurt—may be protective against cancer cells, says lead author Mine Tezal. He adds that the bacteria play an important role in digestion and local immunity systems.

"We could think of dental cavities as a collateral damage, and develop strategies to reduce their risk while preserving the beneficial effects of the lactic acid bacteria," Tezal said. Still, patients should not use the study as an excuse to not strive for good oral health, but that the "main message is to avoid things that would shift the balance in normal microbial ecology, including overuse of antimicrobial products and smoking."

American Board of Oral Medicine spokesperson Joel Epstein critiqued the study, saying that it does not prove a "cause and effect" relationship. Epstein said that more in-depth studies "must be done are not done—this is a real problem of statistical correlation" (Reinberg, HealthDay, 9/12).

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