Dec. 21, 2017 -- Millions of American seniors suffer the discomfort of chronic acid reflux. Now, new research suggests the condition might raise their odds for even more dangerous foes -- head and neck cancers.
The research can't prove cause-and-effect, and the odds of any one person with chronic heartburn developing one of these relatively rare cancers remains low, experts noted.
But the study of nearly 28,000 Americans over the age of 65 did show a heightened risk.
Overall, a history of gastroesophageal reflux disease -- the clinical term for chronic heartburn -- was linked to nearly triple the odds of developing cancers of the voice box (larynx); about a 2.5 greater odds for cancers of the pharynx (top of the throat); a doubling of risk for cancers of the tonsils; and a 40 percent higher odds for cancers in the sinuses.
Head and neck cancers of the respiratory and upper digestive tracts cause more than 360,000 deaths worldwide each year, the researchers noted.
The new study was led by Dr. Edward McCoul, of the Ochsner Clinic Foundation in New Orleans, and published Thursday in the journal JAMA Otolaryngology Head & Neck Surgery.
One gastroenterologist said the findings aren't surprising, given what's known about the effect of acid reflux on sensitive tissues.
"Reflux material from the stomach can rise high in to the esophagus, the food tube between the mouth and the stomach," explained Dr. Anthony Starpoli. He said the same juices "can invade the throat, sinus passages and the lungs, causing [chronic] inflammation."
The link between GERD and another tumor type, esophageal cancer, is already well-known, said Starpoli, associate director for esophageal endotherapy at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
In the new study, McCoul's team tracked data from 13,805 U.S. seniors who'd had cancers of the respiratory and upper digestive tracts between 2003 and 2011. Their medical histories were then compared to the same number of similarly aged people without cancer.
While the study found an association between GERD and head-and-neck cancers, McCoul's team stressed that the data they sourced did not include information about each patient's smoking and drinking history. Both of those habits are major risk factors for head and neck cancers, the study authors noted, so more investigation is needed to tease out the findings.
Dr. David Hiltzik directs otolaryngology at Staten Island University Hospital in New York City. Reading over the findings, he agreed that the study wasn't designed to prove cause-and-effect.
But Hiltzik believes chronic heartburn remains a potential carcinogen and needs to be treated when it occurs.
"We know clinically that acid reflux causes problems throughout life in these areas in the head and neck," he said. "This study reinforces the fact that we need to address these issues early and perhaps more aggressively. I believe patients should be more aware of how their daily diet and behavioral habits can have serious long-term effects."
The U.S. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases has more on acid reflux.
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