March 17, 2011

Eating Disorders Need More Attention

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Joseph V. Madia, MD By:

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Anorexia, bulimia more common in teens than previously thought

(dailyRx News) While eating disorders do not receive the same amount of attention as other serious mental health illnesses, they are more common in teens than one might think. What's more, they found anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating go hand in hand with other mental illnesses.

Sonja A. Swanson, Sc.M., of the National Institute of Mental Health, and colleagues studied eating disorders among teens to find out the lifetime and 12-month prevalence of multiple eating disorders.

dailyRx Insight: Depressed teens are at risk for anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.

Using data from face-to-face interviews with more than 10,000 adolescents between 13 and 18 years of age, the researchers reviewed the prevalence of anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and subthreshold eating disorders (when a person shows disordered eating habits that do not meet the criteria for diagnosis of an defined eating disorder).

The researchers found that the lifetime prevalence rate of anorexia nervosa was 0.3 percent; 0.9 percent for bulimia nervosa; 1.6 percent for binge-eating disorder; 0.8 percent for subthreshold anorexia nervosa; and 2.5 percent for subthreshold binge-eating disorder. The 12-month prevalence rates were similarly low.

Swanson and colleagues also found that the majority of adolescents with an eating disorder also had at least one other mental disorder. For example, 88 percent of teens with bulimia nervosa and 83.5 percent of teens with binge eating disorder had some other mental health issue.

Eating disorders were commonly associated with social impairment, especially among anorexic teens (88.9 percent).

All of the eating disorders addressed in the study were linked to a lifetime risk of suicidal tendencies.

The researchers also found that only a minority of teens with an eating disorder received treatment designed for their specific eating or weight problem, even though the majority of them looked for treatment.

Even though the rates of eating disorders among teens seem low, they are greater than previously expected. Furthermore, eating disorders represent a major public health concern. More attention should be paid to those teens with eating disorders, especially in light of the relationship between eating disorders and suicide.

Eating disorders affect as much as 24 million people of all ages in the United States, yet 95 percent of those people are between the ages of 12 and 25.8 years. Death rates among people with eating disorders are greater than those of any other mental illness.

Helping people with eating disorders is a highly complex undertaking, little of which is understood. There are seemingly hundreds of different methods of psychotherapy designed to deal with eating disorders. However, psychotherapy can be an ineffective treatment once a patient has reached the stage of severe malnutrition. At that point, he or she needs medical, nutritional, and supportive treatment to return to a healthy weight. Only then will psychotherapy be helpful.

The study - which was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health - appears online in the Archives of General Psychiatry.  

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Reviewed by: 
Joseph V. Madia, MD
Review Date: 
March 16, 2011

Last Updated:
March 18, 2011