The celiac epidemic

There is a growing epidemic of celiac disease among the aging. The cure is to avoid gluten, that stretchy protein that makes pizza so delicious.

By looking at collections of blood samples drawn in 1974 and 1989, researchers at the University of Maryland have confirmed something Finnish researchers found out two years ago, that there's a growing epidemic of celiac disease among the aging.

(Picture of lead researcher Alessio Fasano from the University of Maryland.)

Celiac disease is best understood as an allergy to gluten, the protein that makes pizza and bread dough stretch and rise. If you're usually getting an upset stomach after eating pizza, pasta, or bread, you might want to be tested for it.

With proper diet it's no big deal. Lots of famous people have celiac disease, including Saints quarterback Drew Brees, liberal newscaster Keith Olbermann, and conservative commentator Elizabeth Hasselback.

Those names come from the site Gluten Free Kids, because the condition was thought to be lifelong. The lead researcher in this case is a pediatrician by training.

What the research found is not only that celiac disease is rising with age, but that it's often going undiagnosed. As with lactose intolerance (an inability to digest milk) you may be fine for decades, then develop it.

The treatment is to avoid gluten. Thanks in part to awareness created by kids' advocates that is becoming easier. You can even get gluten-free hot dogs and beer at a Mets game (although given their play it's unlikely to prevent stomach upset.)

The key question yet to be answered is why this is happening.

Dr. Fasano thinks this may be due to changes in the bacteria inside your gut. A predisposition to celiac disease may be masked by digestive bacteria, but after they're killed in later life, by antibiotics used to treat an infection or after surgery, they may just not be replaced. He also wants to look at environmental triggers.

All of which points us to another important avenue of research.

The bacteria in our guts are becoming a much bigger focus of medical research, as Boonsri Dickinson wrote here in June. Their composition differs from person to person, culture to culture, and this population (as many individuals as you have brain cells) may indeed be impacted by things like the use of antibiotics.

Or, as I wrote back in 2008, your colon houses an ecosystem. Respect it. Scientists do.

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