Celiac Disease In Older Adults: What To Expect?

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It wasn’t until the 1990s that it was discovered older adults could be prone to celiac disease just as much as the younger generation. In fact, it was the complete opposite – doctors assumed that it could only occur in children. It was believed that celiac disease could be outgrown. Fortunately, we know better nowadays.

Celiac disease is not something that comes and goes. It lasts a lifetime and affects anyone, no matter their age or body shape. The symptoms can range from the blatantly obvious to being virtually non-existent.

Celiac Disease Affects Middle Aged People And Over

Years ago, when researchers discovered that middle aged adults could also be affected by celiac disease, they were very much surprised! So, you can only imagine how perplexed they must have been when they found out that older adults could be living their lives with celiac disease too. Researchers in Finland analyzed the rate of celiac disease in people aged between 52 and 74. When they observed the results, they found that only 25 percent of those with celiac disease had any of the associated symptoms, which were only mild at best.

“Celiac disease is a common disorder, not only in the young, but also in the elderly. It may linger for many years before the diagnosis, causing subtle or quite troubling symptoms and it may present for the first time with serious fatal complications.
A greater awareness of the incidence and clinical presentation of celiac disease in the elderly is essential to prevent long delays in the diagnosis. Whilst the treatment for celiac disease is relatively straightforward, the elderly present specific challenges in the management of their celiac disease, particularly in view of making radical changes to diet as well as coping with the complications of longstanding malabsorption.
A comprehensive, multidisciplinary approach to the management of celiac disease should result in reduced morbidity in these patients. A management approach tailored to the particular challenges presented by elderly celiac patients is crucial to their success.”

Some of the subjects of this study had intestinal lymphoma or gastric cancer. These are just a couple of serious conditions that can develop in people with celiac disease that are not following a gluten-free diet. Furthermore, this study also found that celiac disease in their group of elderly people was more than double compared to that of the general population.

Common Symptoms Of Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is caused when ingested gluten triggers an autoimmune response in the body. If left untreated, it can cause a lot of serious side effects. Diarrhea is one of the main symptoms of celiac disease, and treatments can reduce and resolve it in a matter of days. It’s also possible to suffer inflammation in the digestive tract, resulting in feeling bloated and more digestive issues. Those with celiac disease also suffer from increased fatigue, which can be very common in older adults especially. Weight loss is also possible with celiac disease. This is one of the most visible symptoms of the condition, as well as developing an itchy rash known as dermatitis herpetiformis (DH).

It’s not just physical health it affects either, with symptoms of depression linked with celiac disease, along with dementia, something that requires a more detailed analysis.

Celiac Disease And Dementia

While more recent research is adding doubts to the claim, previous studies have indicated that people with celiac disease are more likely to develop dementia. However, in some cases, this dementia may also be reversible. Research conducted by Hugh J Freeman concluded that “celiac disease may be initially defined after presentation with a neurological disorder. Screening for celiac disease should be considered, especially if a definitive cause for the neurological disorder is not obvious. Further studies are also needed to determine if neurological changes that have been attributed to the so-called ‘gluten-sensitivity’ in the absence of overt intestinal disease can be truly reversed with a gluten-free diet.”

For example, in this study, out of the 7 women over the age of 60 that were selected to be part of the study, 2 had symptoms including “cognitive decline that was attributed to Alzheimer dementia but ameliorated after the initiation of gluten-free diet”, while a third woman with peripheral neuropathy, a condition that causes numbing, weakness or burning pains, saw her symptoms disappear after she started to eat gluten-free food. The other patients in this study experienced more typical symptoms of celiac disease, such as diarrhea, anemia, weight loss, and even early osteoporosis.

Newer studies are not finding a link between celiac disease and dementia though, so the current evidence suggests it’s not a risk factor. Nevertheless, it’s certainly worth keeping in mind.

Should An Older Adult Go Gluten Free?

If they haven’t done so, some older adults might be questioning if it’s worth them starting a gluten-free diet. For anyone thinking this, avoiding gluten is the best natural way to recover from celiac disease. Until gluten is removed from the diet, it’s impossible to know why unwell they really are. While it takes a long time to feel the benefits of being gluten-free, they are certainly worth waiting for. It’s a case of just feeling better overall.

The Bottom Line

Older adults that have celiac disease but have not yet been diagnosed are risking very serious health issues. These can possibly lead to cancer and dementia, although, as discussed, this claim is yet to be decisively proven. Nevertheless, it’s not a risk worth taking.

If you suspect that anyone in your family has celiac disease, make sure that their elders are made aware of it just as much as anyone else. Show them how they can treat it, just in case they have it without them knowing.

If you are an older person and you suspect that you yourself are experiencing symptoms of celiac disease, consider getting testing with the imaware at-home testing kit.

Updated on
April 15, 2021
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