Researchers were trying to figure out when people tend to develop celiac disease — when they came upon some surprising findings.
They discovered that celiac disease is on the rise, and particularly so among older adults. Published last month in the Annals of Medicine, the study shows that you are never too old to develop this autoimmune disease.
Celiac disease is triggered by eating gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Classic symptoms include diarrhea, intestinal bloating and stomach cramps. Left untreated, it can lead to the malabsorption of nutrients, damage to the small intestine and other medical complications.
Since 1974, in the U.S. the incidence of the disorder has doubled every 15 years. Researchers found that, amongst a group of about 3,500 adults, those with blood markers for celiac disease increased steadily from one in 501 in 1974 to one in 219 in 1989. In 2003, a big study lowered that to one in 133.
In the new study, as the incidence of celiac disease rose, the prevalence of celiac disease in older adults was nearly two-and-a-half times higher than the general population. This directly contradicts the common notion that celiac tends to develop in childhood. It means we are not necessarily born with the autoimmune disease.
The problem now is that how and why someone loses tolerance to gluten remains a mystery. Even if you are genetically predisposed to it, you still might not get it. And someone with no genetic link could develop it. What this study seems to show is that, if individuals can tolerate gluten for many decades before developing celiac disease, some environmental factor or factors other than gluten must be in play.
It is these factors that researchers will no doubt be pursuing. They could lead to new treatments and possible prevention of celiac disease — and even other immune problems such as rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. As the third most common disease category after cancer and heart disease, autoimmune disorders affect up to eight percent of the U.S. population.
The diagnosis of celiac disease can be a challenge, as patients who test positive for the disease may not display the classic symptoms. Atypical symptoms include joint pain, chronic fatigue and depression. One last big note from the study is that only 11% of those identified as positive for celiac disease had actually been diagnosed.