Eating Disorders More Prevalent Than Thought Among American Teens

Related social impairment, suicidal thoughts make this a major public health concern, researchers say

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MONDAY, March 7 (HealthDay News) -- Many American adolescents suffer from an eating disorder and struggle with related psychiatric disorders, including suicidal tendencies, new research reveals.

"The prevalence of these disorders is higher than previously expected in this age range, and the patterns of [co-existing illnesses], role impairment and suicidality indicate that eating disorders represent a major public health concern," the researchers wrote.

"This article aptly points out that we should not dismiss eating disorders as a public health problem simply because their prevalence is lower than some other major mental illnesses," said Mary Tantillo, director of the Western New York Comprehensive Care Center for Eating Disorders and an associate professor of clinical nursing at the University of Rochester School of Nursing. "The magnitude of what happens because of eating disorders -- severe mental and physical health complications, psychiatric illness and addictions, high mortality rates and the high cost of acute treatment -- far outweighs their lower prevalence."

"As the article states, eating disorders, as diseases of disconnection, can become chronic and can eventually kill due to the social impairment and isolation they create," Tantillo said in a statement. "Despite loving families, friends and school personnel, afflicted teens can go months or years undetected due to the secrecy and shame surrounding the illness, and the ways in which the disease affects the brain and distorts how they perceive it. Timely diagnosis is often hindered by the inability of afflicted teens to recognize the need for help and/or ask for it. Clearly, when eating disorders in adolescents are not quickly identified and treated, there are great costs to the teen, his or her family and society."

Led by Sonja A. Swanson, of the National Institute of Mental Health, the research team reported the findings online March 7 in the Archives of General Psychiatry.

To research the issue, the authors analyzed data collected by the National Comorbidity Survey Replication Adolescent Supplement, which included the results of in-person interviews conducted with more than 10,000 adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18.

The result: lifetime prevalence rates of anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder and several other eating disorders ranged from less than half a percent of those interviewed to as much as 2.5 percent.

While boys and girls appeared to be equally susceptible to anorexia, girls were found to be more likely to develop bulimia and/or binge-eating disorders.

What's more, the majority of those with any eating disorder were also burdened with at least one other mental health issue. This was the case, for example, with nearly nine in 10 bulimic adolescents, and more than eight in 10 of those with a binge-eating problem.

Eating disorders, the team found, were most commonly linked to social impairment, a problem that affects nearly nine in 10 anorexic adolescents. And all eating disorders were associated with a higher lifetime risk for suicidal tendencies.

Despite the findings, the authors noted that just a minority of adolescent patients with an eating disorder appeared to be receiving treatment designed to deal with their food issues.

Prior research has suggested that adults plagued with the problem are also susceptible to higher rates of associated medical complications and suicide.

Swanson and her team conducted their work with support from the National Institute of Mental Health.

More information

For more on eating disorders, visit the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health.

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