Acid Reflux Linked to Throat Cancer in Elderly Populations

A recent study shows that adults over 65 with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) showed an increased risk of throat cancers.

The study was connected by Tulane University School of Medicine and the Ochsner Clinic Foundation in New Orleans, and showed a strong relationship between GERD and cancers near the esophagus. This area is often exposed to stomach acid and the contents of the stomach in individuals who suffer from GERD.

This reflux is a potential carcinogen, and can damage the delicate tissues of the throat that, unlike the stomach, are not equipped to tolerate exposure to this acidic material.

The researchers looked at individuals who developed cancer in the upper respitory system and digestive tracks and compared their rates of GERD compared to a similar cancer-free population, and concluded the increase was signficant, particularly for cancers of the larynx.

Led by Edward D. McCoul, MD, MPH, of the Department of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery at Tulane University School of Medicine, the research team determined that elderly patients with GERD are about 3.5 times more likely to develop laryngeal (the area above the trachea or “windpipe) cancer, 3 times more likely to develop hypopharyngeal (upper esophagus) or oropharyngeal (throat area behind the mouth) cancer, and 2.5 times more likely to develop cancer of the tonsils.

The team did not determine a causative link between GERD and this higher incidence of cancer, and emphasize that further research is necessary to determine the potential impact of acid exposure to these tissues. However, they established a corallation between longer duration of exposure to GERD and risk of developing cancer, which suggests a causal relationship may be at play.

Dr. McCoul’s team speculate that acid exposure and the resulting chronic inflammation could be a factor in the development of these cancers. Further research is necessary to determine the extent of this link between GERD and throat cancer, and to study whether the link applies to non-elderly populations.

Reference: Riley CA, et al. JAMA Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2017;doi:10.1001/jamaoto.2017.2561.