Gene in Children Linked to Higher Risk of Celiac Disease

Findings may help develop screening recommendations

child taking bread out of toaster

Researchers may be a step closer to helping doctors to identify children born with a higher risk for Celiac disease, which ultimately could result in earlier treatment and fewer complications from the disorder.

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A new study points to a possible way to tell which babies are predisposed to developing the auto-immune disorder.

In the study, researchers from Children’s Hospital Colorado studied more than 6,400 children in the U.S., Finland, Germany and Sweden from birth until they were five years old. They found that the children carrying a specific gene were at higher risk for Celiac disease — particularly the children in Sweden.

The researchers theorize that the higher incidence in Sweden might indicate that environmental factors may play a role, but that more studies are necessary to prove their theory.

The researchers say their findings may be useful in considering future recommendations for screening in at-risk children.

Autoimmune response

People who have Celiac disease experience abdominal pain, bloating, nausea and diarrhea when they eat wheat, rye, barley and processed foods such as pasta, breads and cereals. This is because their bodies’ immune systems respond to gluten as though it is a harmful invader. This immune response damages the lining of the small intestine.

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The study is a good first step toward diagnosing Celiac disease in children sooner, says Laurie Minarich-Tsilianidis, MD.

Dr. Minarich-Tsilianidis treats diabetic patients at Cleveland Clinic Children’s. She did not participate in the study.

“These kids were identified as being at higher risk because of the genes that they carried. In the future it could potentially give us new ways to identify kids who might be at risk at a very early age. This may lead to earlier diagnosis,” Dr. Minarich-Tsilianidis says.

Early treatment is important

Early diagnosis and treatment of Celiac disease are important. When the small intestine becomes damaged, the body is unable to absorb the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients it needs to stay healthy.

People with Celiac disease are at risk of malnutrition. Malnutrition can lead to  anemia, a decreased number of red blood cells due to lack of iron. It also could result in osteoporosis, which is brittle bones from lack of calcium.

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The body’s inability to absorb nutrients also can mean that young people with untreated Celiac disease may not grow properly and may have weight loss and fatigue.

In addition, people who have Celiac disease are prone to developing other diseases, such as thyroid disease, type 1 diabetes and gastrointestinal cancer.

Treatment of Celiac disease

If you have celiac disease, you can’t eat any foods that contain gluten. Dropping gluten from your diet usually improves the condition within a few days and eventually ends the disease symptoms. In most cases, the small intestine heals within six months.

You can still eat a well-balanced diet if you have Celiac disease. For instance, bread and pasta made from other types of flour such as potato, rice, corn, or soy are available. Food companies and some grocery stores also carry gluten-free bread and products.

You can also eat fresh foods that have not been artificially processed, such as fruits, vegetables, meats and fish, since these do not contain gluten.

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