Ulcerative Colitis: Just One Battle for Frey

There is more to our digestive health than we think

Another music industry giant has gone silent.

Best known as a founding member of the Eagles, Glenn Frey passed away Monday at just 67 years old. The band’s website had this statement: “Glenn fought a courageous battle for the past several weeks but, sadly, succumbed to complications from rheumatoid arthritis, acute ulcerative colitis and pneumonia.”

Frey’s medications for rheumatoid arthritis are mainly what caused his condition, the Eagles manager told the website The Wrap late Tuesday.

“The colitis and pneumonia were side effects from all the meds,” Irving Azoff said. “He died from complications of ulcer and colitis after being treated with drugs for his rheumatoid arthritis, which he had for over 15 years.”

The news of his death shocked and saddened fans worldwide. Frey, much like David Bowie, Natalie Cole, Alan Rickman, and Dan Haggerty (“Grizzly Adams”), joins a growing list of household names we’ve lost only a few short weeks into 2016. Most of them suffered bravely in private.

While due to numerous causes, Frey’s death has many wondering about ulcerative colitis, and just what it is.

Inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), which include Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, affect as many as 1.4 million Americans, most of whom are diagnosed before age 30. These are chronic, life-long conditions that doctors say can be treated, but not cured.

For those with the diagnosis, life can be a daily struggle.

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Dr. March Seabrook, with the Consultants in Gastroenterology in Columbia, South Carolina, told LifeZette, “Ulcerative colitis is generally diagnosed in older teenagers and people in their 20s. That’s the most common age to be diagnosed. Not in your 60s. However, people can be diagnosed later in life.”

Because of the nature of the disease, it is rarely discussed in public circles, let alone within the privacy of one’s home.

“The symptoms are pretty disturbing,” said  Seabrook. “They include bloody stools, weight loss, or abdominal pain that they really just can’t explain. If someone came to me with any of those complaints, I am going to very quickly look into their colon.”

The exact cause of colitis and other inflammatory bowel diseases is not entirely understood, but according to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation, “It is known to involve an interaction between genes, the immune system, and environmental factors.”

Here’s what happens: Our GI tracts typically contain healthy bacteria, which aid in digestion. When bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microorganisms get into our the GI tract, our immune system typically attacks and kills those foreign invaders. But in people with IBD, healthy bacteria are mistaken for harmful invaders and the immune system attacks.

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The CCF states on its website: “As the lining of the intestine becomes inflamed and ulcerated, it loses its ability to adequately process food and waste or absorb water, resulting in loose stools. Inflammation can cause small sores to form in the colon and rectum. These can join together and become large ulcers that bleed, resulting in bloody stools. Blood loss can eventually lead to anemia if unchecked.”

Colon cancer is also one of the more serious long-term risks of the condition.

Over the past 10-15 years, however, Seabrook says a new class of drugs called biologics are helping many with IBD lead full, normal lives.

“Normally, I’ll see somebody with ulcerative colitis, if they’re doing very well, just once a year. If they’re having a flare up, I may see them every several weeks until we get things under control,” said Dr. Seabrook.

It’s rare, he said, that someone will come in with such advanced stage disease, however, that it’s fatal. In Frey’s case, while one can only speculate, physicians say the combination of conditions and medications he may have been on could have weakened his immune system to the point where he couldn’t fight off the pneumonia.

Regardless, a full life with IBD is possible. If you suspect you suffer from this, talk with your doctor, understand the symptoms, and know there are treatments available.