Study Shows Early Introduction of Cereal Containing Gluten May Raise Risk of Celiac Disease
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May 17, 2005 -- Infants who are introduced to cereals between the ages of 4 months and 6 months may have a lower risk of developing celiac disease than those who start eating cereal earlier or later, according to new research.
Celiac disease is a condition in which the small intestine becomes inflamed and damaged after eating foods containing gluten, a type of protein found in grains such as wheat, barley, and rye. The disease, which causes malabsorption of nutrients, usually develops in early childhood, and treatment requires following a strict gluten-free diet.
In the study, researchers found that infants at risk for the disease who were introduced to gluten-containing cereals in the first three months of life were five times more likely to develop celiac disease as children compared with those who started cereals between the ages of 4 months and 6 months.
The results appear in the May 18 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.
Although the exact cause of celiac disease is unknown, children who have a close relative with the condition or certain genetic markers recognized by the immune system and associated with the disease have a higher risk of developing the disease. These genetic markers are also associated with a higher risk of developing type 1 diabetes, which means people with type 1 diabetes and their relatives are also at increased risk.
Even so, researchers say few people with these genetic variations actually develop celiac disease and other factors must also play a role in determining a person's risk.
Is Timing the Key?
In the study, researchers looked at whether the timing of when a high-risk infant was first exposed to gluten, such as cereal, affected their risk of developing celiac disease.
Researchers followed more than 1,500 children at risk for celiac disease for an average of about five years. They tested the children for celiac disease antibodies as a marker of their future risk of the disease. Antibodies are proteins created by the immune system that help fight infection and are involved in inflammation.