Inflammatory bowel disease refers to a miserable set of symptoms that don’t usually get discussed in polite company. IBD is one of the common sources of stomach distress and it can be responsible for abdominal cramping, diarrhea, and bloody stool, fatigue, and weight loss. The most common sources of IBD are Crohn’s Disease and ulcerative colitis, and cases are on the rise, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Now a recent study suggests that rural living—especially during the first five years of a child’s life—provides significant protection from these conditions.
Lead study author Eric I. Benchimol MD, PhD, and colleagues relied on health data collected during surveys of virtually all residents of the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, and Ontario. In 2011, the provinces had a combined population of more than 19 million people—and 45,567 of them had either Crohn’s Disease or ulcerative colitis.
Once Dr. Benchimol divided the groups into rural versus urban, he found that the incidence of IBD for country folk was 30.72 per 100,000; in cities, the rate was 33.16 per 100,000. In addition, rural patients were diagnosed at an older age than urban patients.
The study, which was conducted at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) Research Institute and the Canadian Gastro-Intestinal Epidemiology Consortium, (CanGIEC), and published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology, also confirmed that spending time during the first five years of life in a rural household is “strongly protective” against developing IBD down the road. Crunching the numbers even further, the researchers came to believe that the first year of a child’s life is the most critical time for establishing that protection.
The results made sense to the researchers, who were already aware that growing up in a smaller family increases the risk of IBD (families tend to be smaller in the city than in the country). Also, children who have been exposed to farm animals at an early age are at a lower risk. The precise reason for why country living is protective against IBD is not yet clear, but the researchers believe it may have something to do with the properties of gut bacteria to which people are exposed in the country versus the city.