They have found that the autoimmune disorder is on the rise with evidence of increasing cases in the elderly.

"You're never too old to develop celiac disease," says Doctor Alessio Fasano, director of the University of Maryland's Mucosal Biology Research Center and the celiac research center, which led the study.

Celiac disease is triggered by consuming gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Classic symptoms include diarrhea, intestinal bloating and stomach cramps. Left untreated, it can lead to the malabsorption of nutrients, damage to the small intestine and other medical complications.

Since 1974, in the U.S., the incidence of the disorder has doubled every 15 years. Using blood samples from more than 3,500 adults, the researchers found that the number of people with blood markers for celiac disease increased steadily from one in 501 in 1974 to one in 219 in 1989. In 2003, a widely cited study conducted by the celiac research center placed the number of people with celiac disease in the U.S. at one in 133.

As the people in the study aged, the incidence of celiac disease rose, echoing the findings of a 2008 Finnish study that found the prevalence of celiac disease in the elderly to be nearly two and a half times higher than the general population. The recent findings challenge the common speculation that the loss of gluten tolerance resulting in the disease usually develops in childhood.

Although researchers have identified specific genetic markers for the development of celiac disease, exactly how and why an individual loses tolerance to gluten remains a mystery. "Even if you have these genetic markers, it's not your destiny to develop an autoimmune disease," adds Fasano.

The finding contradicts the common wisdom that nothing can be done to prevent autoimmune disease unless the triggers that cause autoimmunity are identified and removed. But if individuals can tolerate gluten for many decades before developing celiac disease, some environmental factor or factors other than gluten must be in play, notes Fasano.

Identifying and manipulating those factors could lead to novel treatment and possible prevention of celiac disease and other autoimmune disorders.

MEDICA.de; Source: University of Maryland Medical Center