In the study, Fasano and his colleagues analyzed blood samples, questionnaires and clinical information from a group of more than 3,500 adults that was taken in 1974 and again 15 years later. What they discovered came as a bolt from the blue: twice as many of the participants had celiac disease as had the disease 15 years earlier.
This means people who had previously tested negative for celiac disease in their adult life, now had the autoimmune disorder. “That was a major and unexpected finding,” Fasano told Allergic Living.
Like any autoimmune disease, celiac disease requires two components: genes that make a person vulnerable to developing the disease, and a trigger. Since this study looked at samples from the same people, that takes out genetic variability. Also, unlike other autoimmune diseases, the trigger for celiac is known: gluten. However, since the findings show that some people are tolerating gluten for many years, there must be other changes or interactions at play.
Fasano has several theories, from the increased quantity of grains we eat to the early age at which we introduce them. However, he says one hypothesis stands out: “My personal opinion is that something in the composition of the bacteria in the gut, what we call, technically, the macro-bio, has changed in this time for these people and made them more susceptible to lose tolerance to gluten.”
Change in Gut’s Bacteria?
What would cause a person’s gut bacteria to change? He says these changes could be due to modern conveniences such as surgeries, vaccinations, antibiotics and genetically modified food. He also cites the hygiene hypothesis – the theory in allergy and asthma that we are too clean in modern society and our immune systems don’t get enough of a workout – as another possibility for being more at risk.
Everyone is different, though, so while Fasano says that celiac disease is the “final destination”, the changes in the body that get someone there will be different for each person.
The study also confirms earlier research that the incidence of celiac disease is on the rise: Fasano and his colleagues found double the rate, 15 years later. But it also sheds light on who the new people with the disease are: people over the age of 60.
This does not come as a surprise to Dr. Ralph Warren, member of the professional advisory board of the Canadian Celiac Association, as what he sees in his clinic certainly supports the new research. He cites the Canadian Celiac Healthy Survey which found that almost a quarter of people diagnosed with celiac disease are between the ages of 60 and 90. He himself has seen three patients diagnosed in their early eighties.
He says common symptoms are diarrhea and weight loss (Hopper lost about 17 pounds in the months prior to his diagnosis). But even though the patients may go to the doctor to get checked out, when no infection is found, they are often told nothing is wrong and to simply live with their symptoms.
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