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Lactose intolerance

Updated 21 September 2018

Risk factors for lactose intolerance

Age, ethnicity, premature birth and diseases affecting the small intestine all play a role in determining one's risk for lactose intolerance.

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Risk factors for lactose intolerance include the following:

Age
Lactase production decreases with age, resulting in a greater chance of developing lactose intolerance as you grow older. Lactose intolerance usually appears in late childhood or early adulthood, and is uncommon in infants and young children.

Ethnicity
Lactose intolerance is more common in certain ethnic and cultural groups. It’s most common in African, Asian, Hispanic and American Indian populations.

Premature birth
Infants born prematurely (between 28 and 32 weeks of gestation) have low levels of lactase, because the small intestines don’t develop lactase-producing cells until the third trimester.

Diseases affecting the small intestine
Diseases of the small intestine, such as celiac disease and Crohn’s disease, can cause lactose intolerance. These diseases cause inflammation and atrophy of the villi in the small intestines, thereby affecting the production of lactase.

Cancer treatments
Radiation therapy for cancer in the abdomen, or intestinal complications from chemotherapy, also affect the lining of the small intestine and may result in lactose intolerance.

Reviewed by Kim Hofmann, registered dietitian, BSc Medical (Honours) Nutrition and Dietetics, BSc (Honours) Psychology. August 2018.