For a long time, celiac disease was thought to be primarily a disease of childhood. But evidence from recent decades indicates a high prevalence of the disease in adults, especially seniors. About 1 in 100 adults have celiac disease. Classic signs and symptoms of celiac disease include fatigue, anemia, diarrhea, abdominal pain and weight loss. However, older adults tend to experience milder symptoms, such as bloating, gas and abdominal discomfort, and may not have diarrhea at all.
If you have celiac disease and eat something that contains gluten, an immune reaction inflames and swells the inner lining of your small intestine. The inner surface of a healthy small intestine is lined with millions of tiny hair-like projections called villi, which help your body absorb nutrients. Celiac disease damages the villi, causing them to shrink and disappear. As a result, the inner surface of your small intestine becomes less like a plush carpet and more like a tile floor. Instead of being absorbed, essential nutrients are eliminated through your stool.
Older adults tend to experience milder symptoms, such as bloating, gas and abdominal discomfort
Your doctor can initiate a diagnosis with a blood test and confirm it with a biopsy of the small intestine. The focus of treatment is on relieving discomfort and preventing complications, which is done primarily by following a gluten-free diet. A gluten-free diet is based on fresh fruits and vegetables, plain meats — not breaded or marinated — fish, rice, potatoes, dairy products, and gluten-free grains, such as corn, quinoa, tapioca, amaranth and buckwheat.
Recent research has identified new possible treatments — whether by a pill, vaccine or other form of therapy — that may someday allow those with celiac disease to better control their condition or even to safely consume gluten. But avoiding gluten remains the safest and best way to avoid complications from the disease.
Have you been diagnosed with celiac disease as an older adult? Share your journey: Aging Well.
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