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Celiac disease was once considered to be a fairly rare disorder. But a new study suggests an increasing number of people are being stricken with the digestive ailment. And there is good reason to be concerned - it can lead to an early death.

The findings, published in the journal Gastroenterology, reveal that the disease is 4.5 times more common today than it was about 50 years ago.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that damages the small intestine, interfering with the absorption of nutrients. It is triggered by gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Symptoms vary from barely noticeable to severe and may include diarrhea, abdominal discomfort, weight loss and anemia.

Although many doctors have suspected that celiac disease is on the rise, researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., documented the trend by studying blood samples from two time periods.

To get a measure of previous disease rates, the researchers analyzing blood samples collected in the late 1940s and early 1950s from U.S. military recruits. Those results were then compared with blood samples recently collected from people living in Olmsted County, Minn.

"It now affects about one in 100 people," said Joseph Murray who led the research. By contrast, the study indicates that only one out of every 400 to 500 suffered from the condition half a century ago.

Dr. Murray says something must have changed it the environment to make the condition more common. He speculated that modern food production and processing could be to blame.

"We are eating a lot more processed foods, compared to 50 years ago." But, he is quick to add, "it could be something entirely different."

Over time, celiac disease damages parts of the small intestine known as villi. These tiny, finger-like projections aid in the absorption of nutrients by increasing the surface area of the intestine. Some celiac patients suffer from nutrient deficiencies that may explain why they are at higher risk of developing a host of ailments including, infertility, osteoporosis, certain cancers and other conditions that can shorten life span.

The study, which included a medical follow-up of those who gave blood decades ago, showed that people with celiac disease are nearly four times more likely to die prematurely than the general population.

Celiac disease often goes undiagnosed because the symptoms can resemble so many other ailments. There is no cure for the disorder, but adopting a gluten-free diet can minimize symptoms and hopefully stave off an early death, said Dr. Murray.

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