Oral health is an essential component of healthy aging. But the prevalence of periodontal disease, tooth loss, cavities, and oral cancer remains high worldwide, especially among older people. Oral functioning affects how long one can expect to stay healthy, which is why it’s so important to prioritize preventive dental care.
Older people are at higher risk for oral cancer, with an average age of diagnosis at 62. Men are twice as likely to have oral cancer than women. The American Cancer Society estimates that 53,000 people will be diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer this year (2019). Oral cancer risk factors include alcohol and tobacco use, HPV infection, excessive sun exposure, and poor nutrition.
Early screening and detection is key for successful treatment. At Penn Dental Medicine, we recommend that patients over 60 come in for a regular checkup and screening every 6 months. These visits will help you maintain a healthy mouth and ensure that we can catch early-stage cancer before it becomes harder to treat.
Many patients want to learn more about risk factors for oral cancer. Many cancer cases (42%) are potentially avoidable according to the American Cancer Society. A risk factor is anything that increases the likelihood of developing cancer. Below, we summarize the major research done on oral cancer risk factors so that you can make informed choices for your health.
Tobacco is a risk factor that causes more deaths than any other drug worldwide, according to the Oral Cancer Foundation. It is linked to at least 25 diseases, affecting health more than any single disease. In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that tobacco is responsible for the deaths of up to half its users. Eliminating tobacco products will immediately reduce risk for mouth and throat cancer; you will have the same low risk as any other non-smoker within 10 years of quitting!
People who use both tobacco and alcohol have a higher risk of contracting oral cancer. Researchers believe that these substances interact to elevate each other’s harmful effects. Alcohol abuse is the second greatest risk factor for oral and oropharyngeal cancer. Heavy drinking is especially implicated, but alcohol consumption of any kind can contribute. The less you drink, the less likely you are to get oral cancer. While you might have heard that a glass of red wine a day is good for the heart, the research is clear that any alcohol consumption has a net negative— not positive— effect on your health.
Understanding how alcohol affects the mouth can shed light on how it works with tobacco to increase cancer risk. Alcohol dehydrates the cells in the mouth, while tobacco carcinogens permeate the oral tissues. Heavy drinking also tends to cause nutritional deficiencies, which lowers the body’s natural ability to stop cancers from forming.
Many people wonder whether smokeless tobacco offers a more healthy alternative. Unfortunately, smokeless tobacco is just as dangerous as regular tobacco. Smokeless tobacco products contain chemicals that can cause cancer of the mouth, esophagus, and pancreas. The most harmful chemicals are called nitrosamines, which develop during each stage of the tobacco cultivation process (growing, curing, fermenting, and aging).
The best bet is to stay away from any kind of tobacco, as it is the number one cause of oral cancer, including in its smokeless forms.
The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most likely cause of oral cancer when tobacco and alcohol use are not involved. That is to say that HPV or other contagions (such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and others) present another risk factor for cancer. HPV is primarily transmitted through sexual contact. Vaccination, treatment of the infection, and behavioral changes are all effective ways to avoid it. HPV cannot be detected through oral cancer screenings. A dentist or doctor can evaluate the symptoms you are having through a visual and tactile exam.
According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, only 1% of individuals get a high-risk HPV infection that will develop into cancer, and this usually occurs many decades after infection. It is unclear whether HPV alone is enough to cause oropharyngeal cancers, or if other factors must interact with HPV for cancer to occur.
People who work in the sun for long periods of time over the years are more likely to develop lip cancer, which is a type of head and neck cancer. This is especially true for fair-skinned people. Most lip cancers occur on the bottom lip due to its greater exposure to the sun. Prevention efforts should include: using wide-brimmed hats and sunscreen, and avoiding alcohol and tobacco products.
Having a diet low in fruits and vegetables also increases one’s risk for oral cancer. That’s because fruits and vegetables contain protective substances such as carotenoids, which have an important antioxidant function in the body. They also have anti-inflammatory and immune system benefits. Studies have shown that the higher your intake of green and yellow fruits and vegetables, the lower your risk for cancer. In other words, eating an abundance of fruits and vegetables is very effective cancer prevention strategy!
Penn Dental Medicine has the knowledge and tools to provide the care you need for optimal oral health as an older adult. We promote healthy aging in our patients through education, oral cancer screenings, and age-specific dental services. If you are interested in seeing a provider that understands the needs of older adults and can offer evidence-based treatment options, we hope you will come visit us at Penn Dental Medicine.
To learn more about oral medicine and how we treat common diseases and disorders of the mouth, you can download our free eBook: “When a Toothache is the Least of Your Troubles: An Introduction to Oral Medicine.”
To schedule an appointment at PDM, please call us at 215-898-8965.