July 1, 2009

Increase in celiac disease baffles doctors

Celiac disease, an immune system reaction to gluten in the diet, is more than four times more common today than it was 50 years ago, U.S. researchers say.

Dr. Joseph Murray of Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., also found that subjects who did not know 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, Murray said in a statement. It now affects about one in a hundred people.

In patients with celiac disease, the presence of the protein gluten from wheat, barley or rye triggers an immune system attack, damaging the villi in the small intestine. Villi are fingerlike projections that increase the intestine's surface area for nutrient absorption, Murray said.

The researchers tested blood samples gathered at Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming between 1948 and 1954 for the antibody that people with celiac disease produce in reaction to gluten. The study, published in the journal Gastroenterology, found young people today are 4.5 times more likely to have celiac disease than young people were in the 1950s.

Something has changed in our environment to make it much more common, Murray said. 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.