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New Study Shows Celiac Disease on the Rise, Striking Later in Life

Scientists suspect environmental factors fueling higher celiac disease rates, older patients. 10/26/2010 - A recent study shows that, since 1974, the rate of celiac disease has doubled every fifteen years, and that celiac rates increase as people grow older, with many developing the disease in their 50s or 60s.

The Center for Celiac Research led the study, which looked at 3,511 volunteers who submitted blood samples in 1974 and 1989, along with updates every two to three years until 2007.

Because researchers in the study surveyed the same people over time, says Mayo Clinic gastroenterologist Dr. Joseph Murray, the study adds weight to the concept that celiac disease can emerge at any age.

The study results also echo those of a 2008 Finnish study that found that elderly people had rates of celiac disease nearly two and a half times higher than the general population.

The fact that celiac disease seems to be increasing among older age groups is significant because, if someone can be gluten-tolerant for 40 or 50 years before developing celiac disease, environmental factors may outweigh genetic causes for the disease, says Alessio Fasano, director of the Center for Celiac Research.

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Fasano says that other unknown environmental changes and changes in "the composition of bacteria in our guts" may be causing gluten autoimmunity to present itself later in life.

Although researchers have identified specific genetic markers for the development of celiac disease, the exact way in which people lose tolerance to gluten remains unknown.

However, it's important to understand that even people who have the genetic markers in question are not fated to develop an autoimmune disease, says Fasano. That's because recent study shows "that environmental factors cause an individual's immune system to lose tolerance to gluten, given the fact that genetics was not a factor in our study since we followed the same individuals over time," he says.

If environmental factors do play a role in celiac disease, then it will be interesting to see if certain areas and regions have high celiac rates that are not due to genetic factors.

More importantly, the research team notes that by identifying the environmental factors behind celiac disease, researchers may lead to better treatment and possible prevention of celiac disease and other autoimmune disorders, including type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis.

Annals of Medicine: October 2010, Vol. 42, No. 7 , Pages 530-538
doi:10.3109/07853890.2010.514285 welcomes your comments below (registration is NOT required).

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6 Responses:

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said this on
27 Oct 2010 12:21:35 PM PDT
It's actually fairly common knowledge that celiac is NOT a "genetic" disease anymore than Type 1 diabetes, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Lupus, MS, etc. are. Not everyone born with the genes for these diseases gets them. And other people get them with low risk genes. They are multi-factorial diseases. Generally speaking, autoimmune diseases occur in genetically *susceptible* individuals after exposure to the "perfect storm" of triggers and/or events. In some cases environment may play a larger role than genes, in others it's the opposite. In identical twins (same DNA), both twins only have Celiac 70-80% of the time. In a truly genetic disorder without environmental modifiers (such as cystic fibrosis), BOTH twins will have the disease 100% of the time. And this also dispels the myth that you are "born with" Celiac even if you don't show symptoms until later. Not true for most cases, or at least a subset. Now we need to find out WHY Celiac and other autoimmune diseases are increasing. Gene pools don't change in 50 years, and increased diagnosis doesn't explain this study either. Something in our environment is making those with the genes that *CAN* cause autoimmunity to become sick.

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said this on
29 Oct 2010 5:51:11 AM PDT
One thing that may be going on is that environmental contaminants can interfere with the gut. There is some preliminary research showing possible effects of contaminants on the gut, but more needs to be done.

Jen B.
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said this on
01 Nov 2010 6:06:15 AM PDT
I wonder how much of the increase is a true increase in occurrences or more simply better screening tests. We hear so often about how it took years for many celiac patients to be diagnosed with gluten intolerance.

The data during this transition period to better screening can't be compared directly to data with previous screening methods.

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said this on
01 Nov 2010 9:09:41 PM PDT
I agree as a celiac disease mother with two children diagnosed as celiac disease at 16 years. At 14 both children required an epipen for different allergens. With my second child we watch the disease come and get him, anemia, allergies, rising ttg and then celiac.

We took much of the gluten out of his diet to see if that might prevent the onset but that didn't work. Interestingly, both these children had Kawaski disease as children ( a very rare and sometimes fatal disease). Celiac was a 16th birthday present for both, there is definite trigger.

Research is also showing a similar increase in children diagnosed with ASD. Another disease with a known genetic link and unknown environmental trigger. Twins results similar to that of celiac disease.

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said this on
09 Nov 2010 11:59:54 AM PDT
I am 52 years old. I began having digestive issues about 8 years ago after coming off the Atkins diet which I had been on for 6 months. I was diagnosed with IBS 2 years ago. After reading an article about celiac disease, I began to wonder. My female doctor ran a blood test after I consulted with him and he tells me I have a lot of gluten antibodies in my blood as well as thyroiditis. I am going gluten free for about 2 months but still having some issues.

clifford cline
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said this on
15 Aug 2012 2:32:03 PM PDT
I enjoyed the info. I am 80 years old. 5 years ago they found I had celiac disease. I have been close to death off and on every since. I went gluten-free 3 years ago (which is hard to do). I have 2 girls and 2 grandsons that have it also, and 2 granddaughters who do not. I wish there was something I could do to help stop it.

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