A woman Smiling Researchers have given us another grand reason to brush and floss religiously. The reason for this is tongue cancer.

Researchers at the University of Buffalo and Roswell Park Cancer Institute say they have found a possible link between long-standing periodontitis, or gum disease, and the risk of developing tongue cancer.

The study found that the risk of tongue cancer due to chronic periodontal disease increased fivefold with every millimeter of lost alveolar bone- the bone in the jaw that holds teeth in place.

Periodontal disease is a chronic bacterial infection that affects the gums and bone supporting the teeth. It begins when the bacteria in plaque, the sticky, colourless film that forms on teeth, causes the gums to become inflamed. An estimated 15 per cent of Canadian adults have the condition.

“We expected to see an association, given the results of earlier studies linking chronic infections and inflammation to cancer risk in other organs,” said lead author Dr. Mine Tezal, a professor of periodontics and endodontics at the University of Buffalo and a research scientist at Roswell Park.

“But we didn’t expect to see such a clear association with a relatively small sample size.”

In the 1999-2005 study, researchers compared full-mouth X-rays of 51 males newly diagnosed with tongue cancer against those of 54 men without cancer. Bone-loss measurements were made by the same periodontist, who did not know the participants’ cancer status.

After adjusting for potential effects of age, smoking status and the number of existing teeth, researchers found that the men with chronic gum disease were 5.2 times more likely to have tongue cancer with every millimetre of bone loss than those without gum disease.

“Seeing alveolar bone loss on X-rays indicates the infection has existed for decades, making it clear that periodontitis preceded the cancer diagnosis, and not vice versa,” said Tezal.

The link between periodontal disease and tongue cancer existed even among non-smokers, the researchers concluded.

A larger study by Tezal and colleagues, as yet unpublished, has found a similar tongue cancer risk for women with periodontal disease.

It’s theorized that over time, bacteria – and the toxins and enzymes they produce – cause genetic alterations in specific tongue cells, which become cancerous. Tezal noted proper hygiene prevents or arrests inflammation.

Tongue cancer is often not diagnosed until advanced. Signs include white and red or just red lesions that don’t heal. They may be painful, but not always.