Eating disorders are serious but treatable mental illnesses that can affect people of every age, sex, gender, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic group. No one knows exactly what causes eating disorders, but a growing consensus suggests that a range of biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors come together to spark an eating disorder. Once the disorder has taken hold, it can become a self-sustaining process that usually requires professional help and support to recover.
Many eating disorders begin during adolescence, but psychologists and doctors have found an increasing number of young children and older adults diagnosed with these illnesses. The more quickly an eating disorder is diagnosed and effective treatment begun, the greater the chances of recovery.
It’s not uncommon for the symptoms of an eating disorder to change over time. Around half of people originally diagnosed with the restricting type of anorexia later developed bulimic symptoms, according to a study from Harvard University. Someone who primarily binge eats can transition to mostly restricting their intake later. As well, a person can recover from one eating disorder but relapse later with a different disorder.
Especially if under- or inadequately treated, eating disorders can be deadly: heart failure and suicide are two of the most common causes of death in people with eating disorders. Despite this, most people with eating disorders eventually recover. When Harvard psychologists followed a group of people initially diagnosed with anorexia or bulimia for 20 years, they found that two-thirds ultimately fully recovered. Recovery can take a long time and lots of hard work, but it is possible.
National surveys estimate that 20 million women and 10 million men in America will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives.
- 0.9% of women and 0.3% of men had anorexia during their life
- 1.5% of women and 0.5% of men had bulimia during their life
- 3.5% of women and 2.0% of men had binge eating disorder during their life
When another group of researchers followed a group of adolescent girls for eight years, beginning at age 12, they found even higher rates of eating disorders:
- 5.2% of the girls met criteria for DSM5 anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder.
- When the researchers included nonspecific eating disorder symptoms, a total of 13.2% of the girls had suffered from a DSM-5 eating disorder by age 20.
Rates of anorexia and bulimia increased in the 1980s and 1990s, but have remained steady since then. Other research in the UK has found an increase in the rates of OSFED (formerly known as EDNOS) in recent years. No research has yet been done on how rates of binge eating disorder have changed over time.
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