SUNDAY, May 8 (HealthDay News) -- People at risk for celiac disease ought to be screened for the disorder, even if they show no symptoms, a new study suggests.

Celiac disease is a disorder that causes digestive problems in the small intestine when the person consumes gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. The number of U.S. residents with the disease has grown rapidly in recent decades, but, according to the study authors, an estimated 2 million people have the disease but do not know it.

For the study, researchers screened 3,031 healthy people who were related to someone with celiac disease, but had no symptoms themselves, and selected 40 people who tested positive for antibodies specific to celiac disease. By random selection, members of that group were either put on a gluten-free diet or told to continue with their normal diet, containing gluten.

People on a gluten-free diet reported improved gastrointestinal health as well as an overall improvement in their health-related quality of life, compared with the others, according to the study.

"We found that regardless of the clinical presence of celiac disease, most screen-detected patients benefitted from early treatment of a gluten-free diet," Dr. Katri Kaukinen, from the gastroenterology department at Tampere University Hospital and School of Medicine in Finland. HIs team was scheduled to present the findings Monday in Chicago at the Digestive Disease Week conference.

"In addition, the results showed that endomysial-antibody positive patients had an evident gluten-dependent disorder and, therefore, it could be argued that detection of antibody positivity could be sufficient for the diagnosis of celiac disease," she explained in a meeting press release.

After the study, 85 percent of the participants were willing to maintain a gluten-free diet, and 58 percent viewed their screening for celiac disease in a positive light, the researchers said.

"Based on our results, an intensified serological screening of at-risk populations of celiac disease is encouraged," Kaukinen said. "However, more research needs to be done before expanding screening to the general population."

Experts note that research presented at meetings should be considered preliminary because it has not been subjected to the rigorous scrutiny given to research published in medical journals.

More information

The U.S. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse has more on celiac disease.