Eating Disorders Are Age-linked and Sex-linked

Research shows that eating disorders aren't caused by vanity.

Posted Feb 24, 2016

This week is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, and it is estimated that nearly 30 million Americans suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder. That’s greater than the entire population of the top 15 cities in the United States, according to 2014 census data. 

This year, NEDA is focusing on early treatment and diagnosis of eating disorders. Identifying eating disorders early increases the chances of a full recovery.  If you know someone suffering from an eating disorder, the Academy for Eating Disorders and the National Eating Disorder Association has a number of materials available to help. 

We have been conditioned to think eating disorders are not valid and serious illnesses, but instead are about vain girls wanting to be skinny. The glib prescription you sometimes hear for eating disorders like anorexia nervosa is that these women should just eat a cheeseburger and a milkshake. 

However, eating disorders are serious illnesses influenced by complex biological, psychological, and cultural systems.  Here are some facts about these systems and the ways in which they affect the development and expression of eating disorders:

Eating disorders are sexist.  For every one man that develops an eating disorder, there are 10 confirmed cases of women with those disorders. Researchers believe that this sex difference may be at least partly due to female-specific biological processes and hormones.  These hormonal and biological processes likely interact with cultural pressures for thinness and create risky biological and environmental milieus that drive higher rates of eating disorders in women.    

Eating disorders are ageist. It’s rare to see someone with an eating disorder before puberty.  The peak age of first onset is actually post puberty up until the age of 25. Once again, the hormonal/biological changes of puberty, combined with cultural pressures and psychological changes, likely trigger the development of eating disorders in vulnerable girls. 

Eating disorders run in families. Like other serious forms of mental illness, eating disorders run in families. In fact, eating disorders are more heritable than depression, and they tend to be as heritable as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and OCD.  Eating disorders show a heritability of between 50-80%.  We don’t yet know exactly which genes increase the risk for eating disorders, but there are global initiatives to amass large datasets to identify the specific genes for eating disorders. Once we do that, it will open up a whole new area of inquiry in terms of designing better treatments and better prevention programs.

Eating disorders can be deadly conditions that steal some of the most productive years from those who suffer from them.  We need more resources aimed at understanding the biological and cultural risks. Increased understanding of the factors that cause eating disorders will improve early detection and diagnosis and promote better treatments for individuals who suffer from the disorders.    

About the Author

Kelly Klump, Ph.D., is a professor at Michigan State University. 

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