Celiac.com 07/09/2009 - Rates of celiac disease are four times higher today than they were just fifty years ago, according to the results of a new study by scientists at the Mayo clinic. In addition, the study showed that people with undiagnosed celiac disease died at rates four times higher than non-celiacs over the 45 year follow-up period.
Celiac disease is an immune system reaction to gluten in the diet which, left untreated, celiac disease causes damage to the lining of the digestive tract and leaves sufferers at risk for various cancers and other associated conditions. When people with celiac disease eat wheat, barley or rye, a protein called gluten triggers an immune system attack, which damages the villi in the small intestine.Villi are finger-like folds in the intestine that increase surface area for nutrient absorption.
Celiac disease symptoms may include diarrhea, abdominal discomfort, weight loss, anemia, unexplained infertility, loss of teeth or even premature or severe osteoporosis, among others.
Joseph Murray, M.D., the Mayo Clinic gastroenterologist who led the study says celiac disease "now affects about one in a hundred people. We also have shown that undiagnosed or 'silent' celiac disease may have a significant impact on survival. The increasing prevalence, combined with the mortality impact, suggests celiac disease could be a significant public health issue."
So, celiac disease is striking a higher than ever portion of the population, yet doctors don't yet fully understand the reasons for this reality.
A team of Mayo Clinic scientists team performed celiac disease antibody tests on blood samples gathered at Wyoming's Warren Air Force Base (AFB) between 1948 and 1954. They then compared those blood test results with results from two recently collected groups from Olmsted County, Minn. Tests for the first group were matched by age to those from the Warren AFB group at the time of the blood draw, while the second group was matched by birth years.
Researchers found that young people today are 4.5 times more likely to have celiac disease than young people were in the 1950s, while those whose birth years matched the Warren AFB participants were four times more likely to have celiac disease.
Celiac disease was once thought to be rare, and many physicians still regard it as so, but, according to Dr. Murray, that is no longer the case.
"Celiac disease is unusual, but it's no longer rare," he says.
Dr. Murray adds: "Something has changed in our environment to make it much more common. Until recently, the standard approach to finding celiac disease has been to wait for people to complain of symptoms and to come to the doctor for investigation. This study suggests that we may need to consider looking for celiac disease in the general population, more like we do in testing for cholesterol or blood pressure."
For Dr. Murray, the findings underscore the importance of raising awareness of celiac disease, both among physicians and patients. He adds that some studies "have suggested that for every person who has been diagnosed with celiac disease, there are likely 30 who have it, but are not diagnosed. And given the nearly quadrupled mortality risk for silent celiac disease we have shown in our study, getting more patients and health professionals to consider the possibility of celiac disease is important."
One interesting point not touched on in the study is the increase in the gluten content of commercial varieties of wheat now being grown compared to gluten levels of 50 years ago. Additionally, people are eating more wheat and gluten than ever before.
, July 2009;137(1)pp 373-374