Having all your natural teeth not only gives you a great smile and helps you enjoy your favorite meal, but can even improve the chances of surviving certain types of cancers. In a study, researchers found a strong association between oral health and survival among people diagnosed with head and neck cancer.

Head and neck cancers begin in the areas like sinuses, larynx, mouth, behind the nose, lips or salivary glands. Limiting alcohol, tobacco use and avoiding indoor tanning can help reduce the risk of head and neck cancers.

In the U.S., head and neck cancers make up about 4% of all cancer cases. It is estimated that around 66,920 people will be diagnosed with head and neck cancer in 2023, and about 15,400 of them might lose their lives to the disease.

In the latest study, researchers found people with better oral health – those having natural teeth and more frequent dental visits – before the diagnosis have better survival rates.

The team evaluated data from around 2,449 patients with head and neck squamous cell carcinoma who were part of four studies of the International Head and Neck Cancer Epidemiology Consortium. The researchers assessed the participants on factors such as gum disease, frequency of brushing teeth, use of mouthwash, number of natural teeth and dental visits over the 10 years before diagnosis.

The findings, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, suggest that having natural teeth and frequent dental visits had strong associations with overall survival, while tooth brushing and use of mouthwash did not have much impact.

"Having no natural remaining teeth was associated with a 15% lower five-year overall survival compared to those with more than 20 natural teeth. Survival differences of less than 5%, which were not significant, were found for patient-reported gum bleeding, tooth brushing and mouthwash use," researchers said in a news release.

Participants who had more than five dental checkups had better overall survival at five and 10 years compared to those who did not visit the dentist at all.

"Our hope is that these findings become a standard part of guidelines implemented for the prevention and management of head and neck squamous cell carcinomas in the near future," said Antonio L. Amelio, the corresponding author of the study.