Background and methods: We assessed the familial occurrence of inflammatory bowel disease in Copenhagen County, where there has been a long-term interest in the epidemiology of such disorders. In 1987 we interviewed 662 patients in whom inflammatory bowel disease had been diagnosed before 1979, asking whether their first- and second-degree relatives had this disorder. Ninety-six percent of the patients (504 with ulcerative colitis and 133 with Crohn's disease) provided adequate information.
Results: As compared with the general population, the first-degree relatives of the 637 patients with ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease had a 10-fold increase in the risk of having the same disease as the patients, after standardization for age and sex. The risk of having the other of the two diseases was also increased, but less so, and the increase in the risk of having Crohn's disease was not significant in the relatives of patients with ulcerative colitis. The risk of ulcerative colitis in first-degree relatives of patients with ulcerative colitis appeared to be virtually independent of the generation to which the first-degree relative belonged and of the sex of the patient and the relative. The risk of ulcerative colitis in first-degree relatives tended to be higher if the disease had been diagnosed in the patient before the age of 50, but the risk seemed to be independent of the current age of the relatives. The prevalence of the same disease as that of the patient (either ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease) among second-degree relatives was increased; the prevalence of the other disease was not increased.
Conclusions: The 10-fold increase in the familial risk of ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease strongly suggests that these disorders have a genetic cause.