Older women who’ve had gum disease have a higher risk of developing various types of cancer, according to a new study.

The research, conducted by a team at the University of Buffalo, sheds light on a disease that affects many Americans across the country. Nearly 50 percent of adults 30 years and older have some form of periodontal (gum) disease and this number is even higher among adults 65 years and older, according to a 2012 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In an effort to understand how the disease affects women, the researchers conducted the first national study of its kind focused particularly on older women, according to a news release.

According to the results, women who self-reported having gum disease had a 14 percent increased risk of overall cancer. Although a majority of the cancer cases that were reported were breast cancer, the researchers found the risk associated with a history of periodontal disease was the highest for a rarer type of the disease, esophageal cancer.

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“Our study was sufficiently large and detailed enough to examine not just overall risk of cancer among older women with periodontal disease, but also to provide useful information on a number of cancer-specific sites,” Jean Wactawski-Wende, the study’s senior author, said in a statement.

The study, published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, involved data from more than 65,00 postmenopausal women, a majority of whom were non-Hispanic white women and were 68 years old, on average. All of the participants were part of the Women’s Health Initiative, which is a long-term national health study that addresses major health issues affecting postmenopausal women. In a questionnaire, the women were asked if their dental provider ever diagnosed them with periodontal or gum disease.

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“Esophageal cancer ranks among the most deadly cancers and its etiology is not well known, but chronic inflammation has been implicated,” Ngozi Nwizu, the paper’s first author, said in a statement. “It is important to establish if periodontal disease is an important risk of esophageal cancer, so that appropriate measures can be promoted.”

Periodontal disease is caused by bacteria in the mouth that infects tissue around teeth. Some of the warning signs include bad breath that won’t go away, painful chewing, sensitive teeth, and gums that have pulled away from your teeth. To prevent or control the disease, the CDC emphasizes the importance of brushing and flossing every day to remove the bacteria that cause disease and to see a dentist at least once a year, or more often if you experience warning signs.

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