But while experts try to find a cause -- and then, they hope, a cure -- advocates urge people who are at risk for developing celiac disease to undergo screening for the disorder.
Researchers have shown a genetic predisposition for celiac disease, with about 30 percent of the population carrying genes that make them vulnerable, Shilson said.
But because adults with celiac disease often don't suffer the digestive symptoms associated with gluten intolerance, many people are unaware they have it or could pass it on. "About two-thirds of people with the active disease have no symptoms at all," Shilson said.
Studies also have found that the earlier people find out they have celiac disease, the better able they are to head off the disorder's more debilitating effects.
"There's not much you can do to prevent it, but you can be aware of it and catch it," Shilson said. "Early intervention is key."
However, people who suspect they have celiac disease should not go gluten-free before being tested. Doing that can interfere with the accuracy of the screening.
"It's very important that you don't change your diet before you are screened for celiac disease," Shilson said.
To learn more about celiac disease, visit the Celiac Sprue Association.
SOURCES: Alessio Fasano, m.d., director of the Center for Celiac Research and the Mucosal Biology Research Center at the University of Maryland School of Medicine; Carol McCarthy Shilson, executive director, University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center
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