Older adults with celiac disease face a unique set of challenges,
ranging from financial to social. It can be difficult to adapt to – and
afford – a gluten-free diet. Limited mobility can prevent frequent
grocery store trips, and failing eyesight can make it difficult to read
the small print on food labels.
But seniors who are newly diagnosed should not panic. It takes time.
Nobody gets the gluten-free diet right overnight. Staying positive can
make a big difference. Focus on the foods you can eat, not the ones
that are now off-limits.
The risk for celiac disease rises with age. About 2 percent of older
adults have celiac disease, which is double the rate for the general
About one-third of new celiac disease patients are diagnosed after
the age of 65. Still, seniors with celiac disease have an average delay
of 17 years getting diagnosed – three times longer than younger
peers. Any senior who has symptoms of celiac disease (you’ll find
a list here) or who has a family member with celiac disease should be
Older adults usually show symptoms that are similar to those in
younger celiac patients, but older adults sometimes show less
prominent gastro-intestinal symptoms and more atypical symptoms
which can delay diagnosis. Older adults are more likely to have other
medical problems, which also can complicate diagnosis. And seniors
sometimes mistakenly attribute signs of celiac disease to the aging
Celiac disease affects the bones and skeleton. Osteoporosis, a
disease in which bones become weakened, thin and brittle, can result
from celiac disease. Those who have celiac disease have a 3.5 percent
chance of being diagnosed with osteoporosis compared to only .05
percent in the general population. They also have double the risk of
Seniors with celiac disease should consider being tested for
osteoporosis. Osteoporosis can be successfully treated, and the
treatments can help slow down bone loss and prevent fractures.
As well as being prone to malnutrition, celiac disease patients do not
absorb enough calcium and Vitamin D to build strong bone and
prevent it from weakening. Because they don’t absorb the nutrients
from food, they can also be underweight, another risk factor for
osteoporosis. Osteoporosis in celiac disease patients can often be
prevented or improved with a gluten-free diet. A gluten-free diet
and calcium with Vitamin D supplementation may be sufficient to
strengthen the patients’ bones and enable the patients to absorb
the nutrients they need to prevent osteoporosis. Weight-bearing
exercise is also beneficial for prevention.
Recovery often comes more slowly for seniors with celiac disease.
Healing generally slows with age, and many older adults unknowingly
had celiac disease for years before diagnosis.
Seniors generally have the same associated conditions that can afflict
celiac patients of all ages. Age and a delay in diagnosis sometimes
can lead to more serious conditions, including autoimmune disorders
and some cancers. Seniors with a delayed diagnosis are likely to have longstanding nutritional deficiencies, particularly involving absorption
of nutrients. This can lead to conditions such as bone disease and
anemia, and often calls for extra supplements.
Seniors who are diagnosed but still have stomach pain or diarrhea
should not assume that celiac disease is to blame. Another condition,
such as lactose intolerance or diverticulitis, could be the culprit.