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Can coeliac disease develop later in life?

Liz Wood Alphabiolabs

By Liz Wood, Health Testing Specialist at at AlphaBiolabs
Last reviewed: 09/05/2023

In this article, we discuss coeliac disease, what it is, and how the condition can develop in later life.
Table of contents
  • What is coeliac disease?
  • What are the symptoms of coeliac disease?
  • Can coeliac disease develop later in life?
  • What causes coeliac disease later in life?
  • How common is it to develop coeliac disease later in life?
  • How can I get tested for coeliac disease?

What is coeliac disease?

Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease that affects around 1 in 100 people in the UK

The condition develops over time because of a sensitivity to gluten, a protein found in certain cereal grains including wheat, rye, and barley, and commonly used in food products including bread, cereal, and pasta.

When a person with coeliac disease eats gluten, this causes the body’s immune system to attack its own tissue, damaging the gut lining and preventing the body from adequately absorbing nutrients from food.

Symptoms of coeliac disease can range from mild to severe depending on the person, and can include flatulence and bloating, constipation or hard stools, diarrhoea or loose stools, indigestion, nausea and stomach cramps.

What are the symptoms of coeliac disease?

The most common symptoms of coeliac disease include:

  • Flatulence
  • Diarrhoea
  • Sudden, unexplained weight loss
  • Bloating
  • Abdominal cramps or pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation

Some people may also experience more general symptoms such as:

  • Anaemia
  • Infertility or subfertility
  • Malabsorption
  • Malnutrition
  • Dermatitis herpetiformis (a skin rash linked to coeliac disease)
  • Ataxia (problems with balance, co-ordination or speech)
  • Nerve damage

Children with coeliac disease may experience delayed puberty, stunted growth and problems with tooth enamel. You can learn more about the complications of coeliac disease in children here.

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms associated with coeliac disease, it is important to speak to your GP, who will be able to provide further guidance on testing and diagnosis.

Can coeliac disease develop later in life?

The symptoms of coeliac disease are most likely to develop when a person is 8-12 months old, or later in life when they are around 40-60 years old.

Some people with coeliac disease can go undiagnosed for many years, and there are many reasons why a person with coeliac disease may only start to experience symptoms in later life.

For example, they may only experience very mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, or their symptoms may be atypical, such as hair loss or dermatitis herpetiformis (a rash linked to coeliac disease).

This means that they may go a long time before seeking advice from their doctor, or they may be misdiagnosed as having a different illness.

There also appears to be a need for a ‘triggering event’ for the symptoms of coeliac to occur.

Almost all people with coeliac disease have the HLA-DQ2/HLA-DQ8 genes. However, scientists theorise that there needs to be another genetic or environmental factor involved to cause the onset of coeliac disease, in addition to having the HLA-DQ2/HLA-DQ8 genes.

One theory is that an infection, such as a stomach bug, may trigger coeliac disease. Therefore, it is possible for someone to have the HLA-DQ2/HLA-DQ8 genes for many years with no obvious signs of coeliac disease, until a ‘triggering event’ causes the immune system to react to gluten.

Our Genetic Coeliac Disease Test can tell you if you are genetically predisposed to having coeliac disease, by looking for the HLA-DQ2/HLA-DQ8 genes that are associated with the illness, with only two simple cheek swabs required.

The results of the test can also help you seek a confirmatory diagnosis more quickly from your GP, if you are found to have these genes.

What causes coeliac disease later in life?

A ‘triggering event’, such as another genetic disorder, or an environmental factor (e.g. infection, surgery, medication, changes to the gut bacteria), can cause the onset of coeliac disease in a person who may not have experienced any symptoms previously.

They may have been able to eat gluten with no problems for many years until the ‘triggering event’ occurs, and they are no longer able to tolerate gluten.

Some people whose symptoms have been mild or non-existent, or who have been misdiagnosed as having another illness, may have lived with coeliac disease for many years, even decades, without knowing that they have the condition.

However, it is important to remember that a person with coeliac disease who does not experience symptoms, despite eating gluten, will still experience damage to the gut.

Over time, this damage will become so extensive, that symptoms may appear quickly and can be more severe, even if the person has felt ‘healthy’ for many years.

For this reason, it is extremely important to speak to your GP if you are experiencing symptoms that could indicate coeliac disease, as they will be able to advise on next steps for testing and diagnosis.

How common is it to develop coeliac disease later in life?

It is very common for people to develop coeliac disease later in life.

Symptoms often begin between the ages of 40 and 60. However, an individual may have had coeliac disease for many years before experiencing symptoms, and simply was not aware of it.

This can be a cause for concern because if a person with coeliac disease continues to eat gluten, damage to the gut is still occurring even if they have no or few symptoms.

This long-term damage can lead to more severe symptoms in later life.

For this reason, it is extremely important to speak to your GP if you are experiencing symptoms that could indicate coeliac disease, as they will be able to advise on next steps for testing and diagnosis.

How can I get tested for coeliac disease?

If you are experiencing symptoms that could indicate coeliac disease (e.g. bloating, flatulence, stomach pains etc.) you should speak to your GP, who will be able to provide guidance on next steps for testing and diagnosis.

Diagnostic testing for coeliac disease usually includes blood testing for antibodies and, depending on the results of the blood test, a gut biopsy to assess any damage to the gut lining.

However, before undergoing more invasive testing, an at-home genetic test for coeliac disease can also be a helpful option for determining whether you are at risk of developing coeliac disease in the future.

The results of this test can also be shared with medical professionals, which can be useful when trying to secure a diagnosis more quickly.

For £99, an AlphaBiolabs Genetic Coeliac Disease Test uses Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA) typing to confirm or rule out the potential of developing coeliac disease by analysing six DNA markers for the HLA-DQ2 and HLA-DQ8 genes.

If the test results show that an individual has one or both genes (HLA-DQ2 and/or HLA-DQ8), this indicates that they could be at risk of developing coeliac disease in the future.

The test results will show either a negative result or that the person is at very low, low, moderate, or high risk of developing coeliac disease, depending on which genes they have.

However, it is important to remember that having these genes does not guarantee that a person will develop coeliac disease or indicate that they are currently suffering from it.

If the test results show that neither of these genes are present, this means that the individual is unlikely to develop coeliac disease in the future.

Buy a coeliac test

Order your Genetic Coeliac Disease Test direct from our award-winning, accredited laboratory.

Liz Wood, AlphaBiolabs

Liz Wood

Health Testing Specialist at at AlphaBiolabs

Liz joined AlphaBiolabs in 2021, where she holds the role of Health Testing Specialist.

As well as overseeing a range of health tests, she is also the lead on several validation projects for the company’s latest health test offerings.

During her time at AlphaBiolabs, Liz has played an active role in the validation of the company’s Genetic Lactose Intolerance Test and Genetic Coeliac Disease Test.

An advocate for preventative healthcare, Liz’s main scientific interests centre around human disease and reproductive health. Her qualifications include a BSc in Biology and an MSc in Biology of Health and Disease.

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