In recent years, there has been a marked increase in the number of people diagnosed with celiac disease around the world. This pattern suggests that a greater percentage of the population is afflicted than was previously believed. Meanwhile, the rate of child mortality has been decreasing. This is particularly obvious in developing countries where mortality rates are high, but is true in developed countries as well.

Researchers Biagi, Raiteri et al. recently conducted a study that looked at a possible relationship between these two changing statistics. Through a comprehensive literature review, they identified 27 studies from 17 countries examining the occurrence of celiac disease in schoolchildren. Four of these studies were done in Italy, which also allowed the researchers to study changes in the celiac disease and mortality rates over time in a single location.

A study in 1939 revealed very high mortality rates for celiac disease-diagnosed children under the age of five, though interestingly, none of the children died before age one. The role of gluten in celiac disease was discovered in the late 1940s and published in 1953; even so, the discovery was not widely accepted into clinical decision-making and treatment for some time. In the meantime, it was common practice all over the world to feed children “barley water” (boiled grain in water), gluten-enriched pasta, or baby formulas made of flour and milk. Ironically, these foods were even recommended as treatments for babies and children with gastrointestinal problems.

The study authors found that with such high mortality rates for very young children, only a small percentage of those with celiac disease lived into adulthood. As the diagnosis process and treatment options improved for celiac disease, as well as many other childhood diseases, afflicted children were likely to live longer lives. This trend means that the increased prevalence of celiac disease in the population may be because there are more surviving sufferers.

The current study found a consistent relationship between the under-five mortality rate and the rate of celiac disease in the population at large. The study concludes that fewer deaths in children diagnosed with celiac disease leads to more adults with celiac disease, and that the prevalence will continue to rise as environmental and medical advances work to decrease child mortality.

Click here to read the full study.

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The Relationship Between Child Mortality Rates and the Prevalence of Celiac Disease