FRIDAY, Aug. 19 (HealthDay News) -- Complaints of celiac disease
are on the rise in the United States, with more and more people
growing ill from exposure to products containing gluten.
Nearly five times as many people have celiac disease today than
did during the 1950s, according to one recent study. Another report
found that the rate of celiac disease has doubled every 15 years
since 1974 and is now believed to affect one in every 133 U.S.
"It's quite widespread," said Dr. Alessio Fasano, director of the Center for Celiac Research and the Mucosal Biology Research Center at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. "We thought there were regional differences in the past, but now we know it's everywhere."
That increased incidence rate has left researchers scrambling to
figure out why more people are developing the chronic digestive
disorder. Doctors still can't explain the trend, but they are
making some headway testing a number of hypotheses.
"There are many theories out there, not all independent of each other and not all of them true," Fasano said.
Celiac disease is an inherited autoimmune disorder that causes
the body's immune system to attack the small intestine, according
to the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the University of
Chicago Celiac Disease Center. The attack is prompted by exposure
to gluten, a protein found in such grains as wheat, rye and
The disease interferes with proper digestion and, in children,
prompts symptoms that include bloating, vomiting, diarrhea or
constipation. Adults with celiac disease are less likely to show
digestive symptoms but will develop problems such as anemia,
fatigue, osteoporosis or arthritis as the disorder robs their
bodies of vital nutrients.
Awareness of celiac disease has grown in recent years, evidenced
by the growing number of gluten-free foods on the market. However,
medical experts don't believe that the increase in celiac disease
incidence can be chalked up simply to folks becoming more aware of
the chronic digestive disorder or to improvements in diagnostic
Rather, the most popular potential explanations for the increase
in celiac disease rates involve improvements in sanitation and
hygiene in civilization overall, said Fasano and Carol McCarthy
Shilson, executive director of the University of Chicago Celiac
According to the "hygiene hypothesis," Shilson said, people in
industrialized countries are more at risk for celiac disease
because their bodies have not had to fight off as many
"We're just too clean a society, so our immune systems aren't as developed as they should be," she said.
Another version of the hypothesis holds that the cleanliness of
industrialized society has caused a fundamental change in the
composition of the digestive bacteria contained within the gut,
"It's because this increase occurs primarily in industrialized countries, where things are cleaner," Fasano said. "We abuse antibiotics, we wash our hands too often, we are vaccinated more often."
Other potential explanations for the rise in celiac disease
rates, according to Fasano, include:
It's possible, experts say, that each of these theories is
correct to a degree and that a combination of factors will
ultimately be found to contribute to celiac disease. "It may well
be in one person, one plays a stronger role than another," Fasano
But while experts try to find a cause -- and then, they hope, a
cure -- advocates urge people who are at risk for developing celiac
disease to undergo screening for the disorder.
Researchers have shown a genetic predisposition for celiac
disease, with about 30 percent of the population carrying genes
that make them vulnerable, Shilson said.
But because adults with celiac disease often don't suffer the
digestive symptoms associated with gluten intolerance, many people
are unaware they have it or could pass it on. "About two-thirds of
people with the active disease have no symptoms at all," Shilson
Studies also have found that the earlier people find out they
have celiac disease, the better able they are to head off the
disorder's more debilitating effects.
"There's not much you can do to prevent it, but you can be aware of it and catch it," Shilson said. "Early intervention is key."
However, people who suspect they have celiac disease should not
go gluten-free before being tested. Doing that can interfere with
the accuracy of the screening.
"It's very important that you don't change your diet before you are screened for celiac disease," Shilson said.
To learn more about celiac disease, visit the
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