Undiagnosed Gluten Sensitivity andCeliac Disease Increase Risk of Death

by Melissa Diane Smith

If you know wheat bothers you but have never been tested for gluten sensitivity or celiac disease and continue to eat wheat, you likely are putting your life at risk. A large 2009 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that people with diagnosed, undiagnosed and “latent” celiac disease (also called gluten sensitivity) have a higher risk of death, mostly from heart disease and cancer.

The study looked at almost 30,000 patients from 1969 to 2008 and examined deaths in three groups: Those with full-blown celiac disease (an autoimmune disease in the gut to gluten found in wheat and other grains), those with inflammation of their intestine but not full-blown celiac disease, and those with latent celiac disease or gluten sensitivity (who had elevated gluten antibodies but no signs of intestinal inflammation or damage).

The findings were dramatic. Compared to a matched control group, there was a 39 percent increased risk of death in those with celiac disease, a 72 percent increased risk in those with gut inflammation related to gluten, and a 35 percent increased risk in those with gluten sensitivity but no celiac disease.

The findings indicate that contrary to what many conventionally trained doctors believe, you don’t have to have celiac disease with a positive intestinal biopsy to have serious complications, including death, from eating gluten.

Jonas Ludvigsson, the study’s lead author and an associate professor of pediatrics at Orebro University Hospital, Sweden, proposed “malnutrition of energy and vitamins and chronic inflammation” as possible explanations for the increased mortality rates. He also said the higher risk of death in those with inflammation may be because they weren’t told by their doctors to eat a gluten-free diet.

In an accompanying editorial in the same issue of JAMA, Dr. Peter H.R. Green, director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York, wrote that the study raises the importance of doctors diagnosing people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Until recently, gluten sensitivity has received little attention in the traditional medical literature. But Dr. Green wrote that in addition to reinforcing the importance of physicians diagnosing people with celiac disease, the study “also suggests that more attention should be given to the lesser degrees of intestinal inflammation and gluten sensitivity.”


Ellis, Madeline. Celiac disease poses greater mortality risk than previously thought. HealthNews, Sept. 17, 2009.

Ludvigsson JF, Montgomery SM, Ekbom A, et al. Small-intestinal histopathology and mortality risk in celiac disease. Journal of the American Medical Association, 2009;302(11):1171-8.

Green PH. Mortality in celiac disease, intestinal inflammation and gluten sensitivity. Journal of the American Medical Association, 2009;302(11):1225-6.

Melissa’s Comments:

Whether you’re just stopping by this site or visit it regularly, how many times have you heard people say that wheat bothers them or have seen people develop uncomfortable symptoms from eating it, yet those people continue to eat wheat? Countless times, I bet. It’s common for Americans and people around the world to eat wheat numerous times each day and either ignore uncomfortable symptoms they get from eating it or never connect the dots that the symptoms they experience are due to the bread, rolls, pizza, pasta, and processed foods that they eat. This study says that doing that is putting one’s life at risk – and probably cutting many people’s lives short prematurely. The study’s findings are an important message not only for the new year, but also the new decade.

So, do you want to increase your chances of living well into the next decade? Then get yourself tested for gluten sensitivity even if you have already tested negative for celiac disease. You can do that with anti-gliadin blood tests or with the gluten sensitivity stool test available through Enterolab, which is believed to detect cases of gluten sensitivity earlier in the disease process. In lieu of tests or if test results are conflicting, you can try completely eliminating every trace of gluten from your diet for a month to see if there are any changes in symptoms. If any of these tests indicate you have gluten sensitivity, then join the growing movement of people who eat gluten free each and every day. Then spread the word to friends and family members. If you could play a part in saving or extending the life of someone you love, wouldn’t you want to?

Copyright © 2010 Melissa Diane Smith

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