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Celiac Disease: You’re Never Too Old

By Sheryl Kraft

Created: 10/07/2010
Last Updated: 11/26/2019

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It seems that every time I go to the supermarket, I see more and more shelf life devoted to gluten-free products. And it wasn’t until recently that I learned what’s behind it.

Apparently, the disease is on the rise, particularly in the elderly. Celiac disease was once thought to affect people fairly early in life. Now folks who were able to once tolerate foods with gluten (a type of protein found in wheat, barley and rye) are suddenly being diagnosed in their 60s and 70s. It’s not that the diagnosis was missed or hidden before – it’s that they are first developing the disease late(r) in life.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that can run in families (more commonly in Caucasians and Hispanics) with a wide array of symptoms including abdominal pain, diarrhea or bloating; even anemia, headache, liver abnormalities, premature osteoporosis, infertility and tingling in the legs and feet. Its symptoms are frequently missed or misunderstood. (Read on for a first-person’s account with the disease).

Researchers are not certain what has caused both the rise in celiac disease and the development after a lifetime of the ability to eat gluten without a problem. Some think it could be that grains are now more refined (therefore containing more gluten) than before; it could also be that our total consumption of grains has risen. Another guess is that the composition of the bacteria of our intestines has changed, tricking our immune system differently than in the past.

This Matters> If you have any signs of symptoms, ask your healthcare provider to be tested; usually done with a simple blood test. You’re never too old to develop the disease.

Stephanie Stiavetti was 28 when her mysterious symptoms that rendered her practically helpless – and hopeless - led her to a surprising discovery that her diet was the culprit. Below, she shares her story. As I like to say, many times good things come from bad: Due to her diagnosis with celiac, Stephanie, a San Francisco-based food writer and multi-talented woman, was inspired to develop a creative, informative and inspiring blog, Wasabimon. Check it out even if you are not gluten-sensitive - you’re bound to be entertained and find many recipes you’ll use time and time again.

For 27 years, I ate just like everyone else in the United States. I grew up the Standard American Diet, subsisting wholly on processed foods and convenience meals. My parents never taught me that it was bad to eat this way, and in truth, they probably didn't know. My mom and dad struggled to provide us the little we did have, and cheap food was A-OK in their books since it kept us fed, growing, and to all outward appearances, healthy.

The year I turned 28 I fell mysteriously ill, and no amount of medical attention was helping me. I was sick all the time, and my daily life was a roller coaster of nausea, fatigue, fogginess, and exhaustion. I watched my life slip through my fingers, one day at a time, until I'd resigned to being this way forever. A shell of my former self, barely surviving despite the powerful medications my doctors had prescribed me.

A sheer chance meeting of one of my husband's coworkers changed my life. This new person had a gluten allergy, a condition I'd heard about only vaguely in reference to autistic children. Turns out, a gluten allergy could manifest itself in all sorts of ways: fatigue, dizziness, various digestive disorders and a host of other systemic problems that tend to go misdiagnosed by the medical community. 

This information brought a new possibility into my life - could it be that my diet was to blame for all of my problems? Could it really be as simple as that, after a year lost to steroids, emergency transfusions and countless hospital stays? I looked at my face in the mirror, puffy from the lion's share of prednisone I'd been prescribed, and realized: yes, it probably was that simple.

I cut out gluten and went off the steroids. My body got stronger, my moods stabilized and I could suddenly think again. I hadn't realized exactly how much of myself I'd lost until I felt life begin to trickle back into my limbs, like limp balloons slowly expanding with an old spark that I'd almost forgotten existed. 

I can't help but wonder if I had these dietary requirements my entire life, or if they developed slowly after years of eating low-quality food. At this point I suppose it doesn't matter. It is what it is. 

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I too am seeing more gluten free products around - and there are more cookbooks about it too. It is definitely a growing trend. I think it's great you are educating people about this because many people like Stephanie have no idea what is wrong with them.

I learned something new here, too. That's why I love writing about health - it helps keep me informed, along with everyone else out there.

I had no idea there was late-onset of this disease. Thanks for the alert.

Celiac disease causes a very specific reaction in the body, but you can be sensitive to glutens even without that being the problem. My body tolerates small doses of glutens, but will let me know in no uncertain terms when I've crossed the line. It is difficult to live with gluten allergies and sensitivities.

I find it so inspiring to read stories like Stephanie's. Thanks for sharing. I have noticed an increase in gluten-free requirements from our B&B guests. I tried baking gluten-free for them and find I digest the bread better. Did not know celiac could be developed late in life. My brother had it as a child, and his has improved a lot since then.

Interesting that you find a difference in your digestion. I'll have to experiment with some gluten-free products; now I'm curious!

Very informative, Sheryl. Thanks for letting us know.

I had two coworkers who were gluten intolerant and it's surprising how many food items contain gluten that you never would have thought of!

Thanks for writing about celiac disease and thanks to Stephanie for sharing her personal story. While I tested negative for celiac, my doctor's had me avoid gluten for nearly three years. Making that dietary change has significantly improved my health. It's worth getting that blood test. P.S. I love Stepanie's gluten-free recipes!

I'm curious as to why your doc had you avoid gluten if you tested negative, Jesaka? But it's fabulous that it has helped you feel better. There's a lot to that!

I've been tested for Celiac, and though I don't have it, I do have a wheat intolerance. I'm trying to stay off wheat, but have to admit I slip on occasion. It's a hard thing to avoid!

I'd think it would be very difficult to find wheat-free options. I do know lots of people, though, who suffer from wheat intolerance. Maybe it'll catch up with gluten-free products soon.

I'm also seeing in restaurants, grocery stores, plenty of places that offer GF products. When my mom first started experiencing food allergies (yeast, not gluten) nearly 25 years ago her doctors didn't believe her symptoms and asking for substitutions at restaurants, finding yeast-free products was a task, today there's so many more options. Not that it's any easier dealing with a food-related disease, but at least there are options available.

That had to be difficult all those years ago. No one really believed, or knew, much about food allergies.

I've noticed that gluten-free products are everywhere now. I've also noticed the better ones are still at markets like Whole Foods and Mother's (an awesome market here in so Cal).

Yes, just returned from Whole Foods and was shocked to see how many they've added recently.

Just yesterday at a food conference I met yet another woman diagnosed in her 30s with celiac disease, which is also more prevalent in my homeland (Australia) or so it seems. Every time I go back I'm astounded by the number of gluten-free food providers popping up all over Sydney.

2 weeks ago, I started having horrible abdominal pain, bloating and other debilitating gastrointestinal issues. I decided to look up my symptoms and discovered gluten... I probably made things much worse because I just ate bread, thinking that would help! Went a couple of days without any bread...didnt realize so many food contained gluten..and symptoms all but disappeared. Not thinking, I ate some mac and cheese...and the next day I was doubled over in pain again! A visit to doctor is next on my list...


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