Studies have shown wide variation in the prevalence of lactose malabsorption across the world, but no systematic reviews or meta-analyses have recently assessed the prevalence of lactose malabsorption in different geographical areas. We aimed to present an updated systematic review and meta-analysis on the prevalence of lactose malabsorption in adults, by countries and regions, and to assess the variation between different testing methods.
Studies reporting on prevalence of lactose malabsorption and lactase persistence were identified by searching MEDLINE and Embase from database inception to Nov 2, 2016. We evaluated studies presenting lactose malabsorption or lactase persistence prevalence data in adults and children aged 10 years or older, including cross-sectional and prospective studies, using genotyping, hydrogen breath tests, lactose tolerance tests, and other testing methods. We excluded studies in children younger than 10 years, studies using self-reported data, and studies including inpatients and outpatients at gastroenterological wards. Studies were screened by two authors (CLS and SKF) and data values were extracted by two authors (CLS and SKF) independently. The primary outcome was the prevalence of lactose malabsorption. This study is registered with PROSPERO, number CRD42017064802.
We screened 2665 records, and 306 study populations from 116 full-text articles were included (primary sources); data for 144 additional study populations from 59 articles were obtained from review articles, because full-text primary articles could not be obtained (secondary sources). Of the 450 study populations included, 231 were assessed by genotyping, 83 by hydrogen breath tests, 101 by lactose tolerance tests, and 35 by other methods or methods that were not described sufficiently. The studies included 62 910 participants from 89 countries (covering 84% of the world's population). When standardising for country size, the global prevalence estimate of lactose malabsorption was 68% (95% CI 64–72), ranging from 28% (19–37) in western, southern, and northern Europe to 70% (57–83) in the Middle East. When assessing the global prevalence using genotyping data only, the estimate was 74% (69–80), whereas prevalence was 55% (46–65) using lactose tolerance test data, and 57% (46–67) using hydrogen breath test data. Risk of bias was assessed based on ten indicators; 12 of the articles had a score of ten, indicating low risk of bias, 76 had a score of nine, 26 a score of eight, and two articles a score of seven (indicating higher risk of bias). There was substantial heterogeneity between studies within most of the assessed countries.
Lactose malabsorption is widespread in most of the world, with wide variation between different regions and an overall frequency of around two-thirds of the world's population. Acknowledging regional patterns of lactose malabsorption is important to guide management of gastrointestinal symptoms.