Celiac disease is an immune system reaction to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley or rye. In patients with celiac disease, ingesting gluten leads to an immune response that attacks the villi – the tiny, fingerlike projections lining the small intestine that enable the absorption of nutrients from food. Common symptoms of Celiac disease include diarrhea, abdominal discomfort, weight loss, anemia, unexplained infertility, loss of teeth or even premature or severe osteoporosis.
Once viewed as a rare disorder, a new study published in the journal Gastroenterology reveals that occurrence of celiac disease is now four times more common than it was just 50 years ago. The study also reveals that subjects who were unaware that they had celiac disease were nearly four times more likely than celiac-free subjects to have died during the 45 years of follow-up.
“Celiac disease has become much more common in the last 50 years, and we don’t know why,” says Joseph Murray, M.D., the Mayo Clinic gastroenterologist who led the study. “It 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.”
The Mayo Clinic research team tested blood samples gathered at Warren Air Force Base (AFB) in Wyoming between 1948 and 1954 for the antibody that people with celiac disease produce in reaction to gluten. They compared those blood test results with those from two recently collected sets from Olmsted County, Minn. Researchers found that young people today are 4.5 times more likely to have celiac disease than young people were in the 1950s.
“Celiac disease is unusual, but it’s no longer rare,” says Dr. Murray. “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.”
Dr. Murray says the study findings highlight the need for increased awareness of celiac disease, both among physicians and patients. “Part of the problem is that celiac disease symptoms are variable and can be mistaken for other diseases that are more common, such as irritable bowel syndrome,” he says. “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.”
Source: Mayo Clinic (2009, July 1). Celiac Disease Four Times More Common Than In 1950s.