September 28th, 2010
01:42 PM ET

Celiac disease cases doubled every 15 years in study group

The rate of celiac disease is growing and the onset of gluten intolerance can occur in older people, a study in the Annals of Medicine found.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder, triggered by eating the protein gluten, which is found in bread, pasta, cookies, pizza crust and many other foods containing wheat, barley or rye.  People with celiac disease cannot tolerate foods containing gluten and can experience an immune reaction in their small intestines, causing damage and other complications.

Researchers from the Center for Celiac Research at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and their colleagues found that the incidence of celiac disease has doubled every 15 years since 1974 in a population sample.

Blood samples from more than 3,500 adults showed that the number of people with blood markers for celiac disease rose from one in 501 in 1974 to one in 219 in 1989, according to the study.

The study detected a rising prevalence in celiac disease as the study participants aged - and two of them developed celiac disease in their late 60s.

"We provide evidence that [celiac disease] autoimmunity may develop at any age, even in the elderly," the authors concluded. "The sharp increase of CD prevalence observed in the US between the time window investigated in this study (1974 – 1989) and current time was apparently related to an increasing number of subjects that, in their adulthood, lost the immunological tolerance to gluten. The reasons for these changes are not clear but should be investigated among the many environmental factors favoring CD."

The findings challenge the frequently held notion that the disorder develops during childhood. “This increase was due to an increasing number of subjects that lost the immunological tolerance to gluten in their adulthood,” researchers wrote.  The cause remains unclear.

The rate of the autoimmune disorder in the United States was estimated in a 2003 study to be  one in 133.

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