Though more commonly thought of as a disease that manifests in youth and young-adulthood, celiac disease is being diagnosed in the elderly with increasing frequency.

Celiac disease is the name given to a specific type of autoimmune response that occurs when a person ingests gluten, a protein found in foods such as pasta and bread.

Recent research, conducted by scientists from the University of Maryland School of Medicine Center for Celiac Research, has discovered that celiac disease is about two and a half times more common among elderly people than it is in the population as a whole.

One of the lead researchers of this study, Dr. Alessio Fasano, M.D., Director of the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research, discusses celiac disease in an interview for the University of Maryland.

According to Dr. Fasano, people with a genetic predisposition for celiac disease may develop it at any time, even if they have been eating gluten for years without any problems. He says this of the disease, "You cannot grow out of it, but you may grow into it."

If a person with celiac disease eats food containing gluten, their immune system will go on the defensive, injuring and sometimes destroying the hair-like villi that line the inside of the small intestine. Without villi, an elderly person will not be able to soak up essential vitamins and minerals from their food. A variety of different health problems can arise from the malnutrition caused by untreated celiac disease. When left untreated, celiac disease can pose serious health risks for the elderly that include osteoporosis (reduced bone density caused by thinning bones) and neuropathy (nerve damage).

The common symptoms associated with celiac disease are diarrhea and abdominal pain and cramping.

Other symptoms can include:

How is it diagnosed?

Celiac disease can be notoriously difficult to diagnose, especially among the elderly who, research has shown, tend to exhibit more understated symptoms than younger people.

The Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University says that the average person with celiac in the United States will experience a nine year window of time between the start of their symptoms and a formal diagnosis of the disease.

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There are three main diagnostic tests a doctor can run to see if an elderly person has celiac disease;

  • A blood test to look for abnormal amounts of antibodies
  • A biopsy of skin from the small intestine to look for injured villi
  • A camera in the form of a swallow-able pill that captures images of the inside of the small intestine

Living with celiac

As many as 34% of people that are diagnosed with celiac disease are over 60 years old, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Happily, treatment is easy to understand, if not as easy to follow through with. To experience relief from symptoms, all a person with celiac disease must do is to avoid the primary trigger: gluten.

The kicker in this directive is that gluten is a key component in a LOT of food products.

Some common foods that contain gluten include:

  • Pasta
  • Bread
  • Foods containing wheat, rye, or barley

Gluten-free products are quickly becoming staples on many a grocery store shelf. However, Dr. Fasano says people should exercise caution when buying foods touted as "gluten-free" as many of these products can be susceptible to cross-contamination and contain trace amounts of gluten. Even these small amounts may be detrimental to the health of a person suffering from celiac disease.

A gluten-free diet should help the colon calm down and begin healing. The time it takes to fully recover from the damage caused by celiac disease is anywhere from a few months to a few years, depending on the extent of the injury and the individual person. It is likely that it will take longer for a senior to mend than it would for a younger person.