An early diagnosis and strict dietary habits could help save the lives of patients with coeliac disease, scientists reported this week in the medical journal, The Lancet. In a recent study researchers at the University of Milan in Italy found that the death rated among coeliac disease suffererers was almost double that of the general population. The study, led by Professor Giovanni Corrao, followed 1072 adult patients with coeliac disease consecutively diagnosed in 11 gastroenterology units between 1962 and 1994 and their 3384 close relatives. They examined how many died over a period of time, comparing this to how many people might be expected to die over the same period. In normal circumstances, fewer than 26 of them would have died - but 53 of the coeliac patients died. The main cause of death was non-Hodgkin lymphoma - a cancer which is a well-known complication of long-term coeliac disease sufferers. A delay in diagnosis of 10 years more than trebled the risk in people with severe disease. And those who did not stick to the restricted diet needed by patients increased their chances of death yet further. The scientists concluded that prompt and strict dietary treatment decreases mortality in coeliac patients. They added that further studies are needed to clarify the progression of mild or symptomless coeliac disease and its relation to intestinal lymphoma. For patients suffering from this disease eating certain foods which contain gluten - like wheat - damages the gut lining and reduces the ability of the person to absorb vital nutrients from all food. Full findings are published in this weeks UK medical journal The Lancet.