Frozen blood samples collected more than 50 years ago reveal that celiac disease, an intolerance to the wheat protein gluten, was less than a quarter as common then as it is today.
"Celiac disease is unusual, but it's no longer rare," said Joseph Murray, a gastroenterologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and lead author of a study published this month in the journal Gastroenterology, in a statement. "Something has changed in our environment to make it much more common.”

What that difference is researchers still don’t understand. What they do know is that nearly 1 in 100 people tested recently in Minnesota were positive for the antibody to gluten—the hallmark of celiac disease. That’s more than a four-fold increase compared with people whose blood was sampled at Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming between 1948 and 1954.

Individuals were matched "across time" by both birth year and age. The latter comparison resulted in close to a five-fold difference in prevalence, suggesting young people today are at an even higher risk.

This reaction to gluten, a group of proteins found in grains like wheat and barley, can damage the small intestine and prevent the body from properly absorbing vitamins and minerals. Once diagnosed, however, adjustments to the diet make celiac very manageable.

Because most people with the disease remain undiagnosed, Murray says it’s time to start “looking for celiac disease in the general population, more like we do in testing for cholesterol or blood pressure." Those with “silent” celiac disease—all subjects in the early cohort, since diagnosis wasn't common until the 1990s—were nearly four times more likely to die during the study’s 45 years of follow-up than people celiac-free.

“The increasing prevalence, combined with the mortality impact, suggests celiac disease could be a significant public health issue,” said Murray.

Photo by Whatsername? via Flickr.