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The statistics of the German social security system were used to analyse the epidemiology of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) in Germany and to assess its impact on disability. Patients granted disability pension for IBD were compared with a control group of patients disabled from other causes. Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis led to disability in significantly younger patients than other diseases. Disability from Crohn's disease was 2.0-fold more common in women than men (95% confidence interval: 1.8-2.3), while disability from ulcerative colitis was similar in both sexes. White collar employees were affected by both diseases more frequently than blue collar employees, the ratio being 1.3 (1.2-1.5) in Crohn's disease and 1.6 (1.4-1.8) in ulcerative colitis. Although IBD is relatively rare, it has severe socioeconomic implications, because compared with other diseases, predominantly young age groups become disabled.