While there has definitely been a greater awareness of celiac disease in recent years, most people still think of it as a childhood disease. Celiac disease, an autoimmune condition that causes the body to react to wheat gluten, can actually strike a person at any age, and it has become more common than ever for elderly people to experience it. Because of the lack of education and information on seniors with celiac disease, the condition is often under-diagnosed and left untreated for many.
What is Celiac Disease?
Celiac disease is a genetic condition that causes the body to react negatively when it ingests wheat gluten. It’s an autoimmune disorder that causes damage to the small intestine, which in turn affects how the body absorbs nutrients. Those with celiac disease have damaged villi, the small finger-like projections that line the intestine. It can lead to a number of other health problems if it is not treated. The only way to treat celiac disease is for the person to stick to a strict gluten-free diet.
Celiac Disease and Seniors
There is not a lot of research in connection with celiac disease and seniors, and they are the most likely age group to be misdiagnosed. In seniors, the biggest problem is that medical experts note that the typical symptoms of celiac disease manifest at a lower frequency than in younger age groups. It can take much longer to diagnose celiac disease in seniors, which leads to a lot of health problems before it can be resolved. Senior women are more likely to develop the disease and it can appear in seniors of both sexes at any age, despite a lifetime gluten tolerance prior to it. Also, celiac disease in seniors is more likely to trigger other autoimmune disorders.
Symptoms of Celiac Disease in Seniors
Typical symptoms of celiac disease in the general population have to do with the digestive system and include gas pains, bloating, nausea, constipation, and diarrhea. However, seniors are less likely to demonstrate these kinds of symptoms. Even if the symptoms present, they are typically milder and can easily be considered as more typical digestive issues.
Other more subtle warning signs can point to celiac disease in seniors, including anemia, loss of bone density, wear on teeth enamel, mouth ulcers, headaches, joint pain, skin rashes and heartburn. Because so many of these symptoms appear with other illnesses as well as simply age-related side effects, it’s very difficult to diagnose celiac disease in seniors.
Family Caregivers Need Celiac Disease Education
Because of the reduced nature of more common symptoms of celiac disease in the elderly, family caregivers need to know what to watch for and help document when any symptoms occur. They can enlist the help of other family members, friends and senior care aides as well. Regular visits to a physician can also help narrow down the causes of these symptoms.
If an initial diagnosis doesn’t seem to be working, family caregivers can be persistent with the physician and push for a deeper investigation. That, plus good documentation from family members and senior care aides about symptoms and possible triggers can help medical experts arrive at a proper diagnosis much sooner.
As more people learn that celiac disease can happen in the elderly just as frequently as in children, it should be easier to get the right diagnosis much faster, and provide seniors with the relief they need to stay healthy.
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