Eating and psychological disorder anorexia among young children shows alarming rise

The annual number of new cases of anorexia among 8 to 12-year-olds in the UK and Ireland is around double that of a previous estimate in 2006.


                            Eating and psychological disorder anorexia among young children shows alarming rise

Anorexia, a serious eating and psychological disorder, has nearly doubled among 8 to 12-year-olds in the UK and Ireland as compared to 2006.

A research team found that the incidence rate of anorexia among 8 to 12-year-olds treated in hospital or specialist clinics in the UK was 3.2 per 100,000 young people. "In 2006, the incidence rate of anorexia among 8 to 12-year-olds treated in UK hospital/specialist clinics was approximately 1.5 per 100,000 young people, or with the inclusion of 'other eating disorders' that may now be diagnosed as anorexia nervosa, 2.1 per 100,000", says the study published in BMJ Open.

The research team says the findings suggest that incidence rates for younger children have increased over time.

The increase, according to study author Professor Sarah Byford from King's College London, might suggest that young people, potentially vulnerable to developing an eating disorder, are being exposed at an earlier age to pressures to lose weight. However, it is also possible that this finding reflects better identification of young people with anorexia nervosa by health services, families, and schools, Professor Byford told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW).

“The results suggest that there may be a need to ensure eating disorders services are available to assess and treat younger children, not just adolescents", says Professor Byford, from the Health Service and Population Research Department, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King's College.

"While it is possible that young people are being exposed to pressures to lose weight at an earlier age, and thus are developing anorexia nervosa at an earlier age, it is also possible that this increase reflects improvements in the identification of anorexia nervosa. Families, schools, and healthcare providers are all becoming more aware of the condition and thus may be more likely than in the past to spot symptoms and ensure that the young person gets referred to specialist services", Professor Byford told MEAWW.

According to Mayo Clinic experts, anorexia nervosa, which is often referred to as anorexia, is an eating disorder characterized by abnormally low body weight, an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted perception of weight. "People with anorexia place a high value on controlling their weight and shape, using extreme efforts that tend to interfere with their lives significantly", says Mayo Clinic. 

Anorexia nervosa has high morbidity and the highest deaths among psychiatric disorders. Experts at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in the US explain that people with anorexia nervosa might see themselves as overweight, even when they are dangerously underweight.

Anorexia nervosa, which is often referred to as anorexia, is an eating disorder characterized by abnormally low body weight, an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted perception of weight. (Getty Images)

The research team says that the current estimates for anorexia are at least 10-years-old and mostly derived from general practitioner (GP) records, rather than hospital/specialist clinics, services, which are likely to be a more reliable source of information on how many children and teens have the condition.

Accordingly, for the new study, the researchers looked at monthly records, submitted by specialist psychiatrists to the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Surveillance System (CAPSS) in the UK and Ireland for a period of eight months in 2015. The surveillance system is designed to ascertain cases of rare childhood mental health conditions in the UK and Ireland through monthly reporting by clinicians. The CAPSS system has been operating since 2009 and is based on the British Paediatric Surveillance Unit (BPSU) system.

The data, which cover 8 to 17-year-olds, were used to calculate the annual incidence rate, that is, the rate of new cases per 100,000 among those in this age bracket. During the eight months, 305 new cases were diagnosed, most of them in young women (91%), from England (70%), and of white ethnicity (92%). The mean age was 14.6 years, says the team.

Based on these figures, the researchers calculated an annual incidence rate of 25.66 per 100,000 for girls and 2.28 per 100,000 for boys, with an overall rate of 13.68 new cases for every 100,000 children and teens aged 8 to 17.

The rate of new cases increased steadily with age, peaking at the age of 16, with a substantial drop by the age of 17. For girls, this peak occurred at the age of 15, compared with 16 for boys. But rates fell by at least half by the age of 17 for both sexes, shows analysis. 

A comparison with earlier estimates suggests that the rate of incidence for children aged 12 and under has increased over the last 10 years. "Comparable figures for 8-12-year-olds were 3.2/100,000, overall, with rates of 4 per 100,000 for 11-year-olds, and 12 per 100,000 for 12-year-olds", the findings state.

According to the experts, future research should explore the development of earlier interventions, given evidence of an increase in incidence in young children. Raising awareness of the symptoms of anorexia nervosa, as well as the risk factors - for example, trauma, abuse, bullying, an anxious temperament, a tendency towards perfectionism, avoidant coping styles - is crucial to support parents, teachers and other professionals to spot warning signs early, says Professor Byford. 

"Early identification will help to ensure young people get the support they need as quickly as possible, and before the eating disorder becomes a chronic and long-term problem. Health professionals and policymakers should also focus on early identification and early intervention services. And, where these (services) do not currently exist, they should consider the provision of specialist eating disorders services for younger children, as well as adolescents," Professor Byford told MEAWW.

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