Prevalence of eating disorders higher than previously thought

A new study shows that many American adolescents suffer from an eating disorder and struggle with related psychiatric disorders, including suicidal tendencies. The researchers write, “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.” 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.

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 said, “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…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.” She explains further, “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…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.”

For the study 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. They found that 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. Boys and girls appeared to be equally susceptible to anorexia but girls were found to be more likely to develop bulimia and/or binge-eating disorders. These children also had 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. All eating disorders were associated with a higher lifetime risk for suicidal tendencies. On a sad note, just a minority of adolescent patients with an eating disorder appeared to be receiving treatment designed to deal with their food issues.

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

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.


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