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"Our findings show that children, particularly those under the age of 10, experience a protective effect against IBD if they live in a rural household," said study author Dr. Eric Benchimol.
"This effect is particularly strong in children who are raised in a rural household in the first five years of life," said Benchimol, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa.
These are important findings, Benchimol said in a hospital news release, noting their previous work shows the number of very young children diagnosed with IBD has jumped in the past 20 years.
IBD -- which includes Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis -- is a lifelong condition that causes inflammation in the digestive tract, resulting in chronic diarrhea, blood in the stool, abdominal pains and weight loss.
The researchers looked at more than 45,500 IBD patients in Canada. More than 6,600 were from rural homes while almost 39,000 were living in urban areas. The reduced risk of IBD among rural residents was especially notable among children and teens, the researchers said.
"The findings also strengthen our understanding that environmental risk factors that predispose people to IBD may have a stronger effect in children than adults," Benchimol added.
The study only finds an association between country life and reduced IBD risk. Still, "we've known that in addition to genetic risk factors, environmental factors have been associated with the risk of developing IBD," Benchimol said.
The researchers said early life exposure to a rural environment may change the intestinal "microbiome," referring to the trillions of bacteria and other microbes that inhabit the human gut.
"But this new study demonstrates the importance of early life exposure in altering the risk of IBD, and that needs further study," Benchimol added.
The study was published recently in the American Journal of Gastroenterology.
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SOURCE: Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario, Canada, news release, July 25, 2017