Girls attending schools with greater proportions of female students as well as higher numbers of university- educated parents are more likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder, according to a new study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology.
Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder, affect 5.7 percent of adolescent girls. In a classroom of 30, that’s almost two students. Eating disorders are very serious conditions: someone with bulimia nervosa is around twice as likely to die young as someone without it, while someone with anorexia nervosa is about six times more likely to die young.
“Eating disorders have an enormous effect on the lives of young people who suffer from them — it is important to understand the risk factors so that we can address them,” says study leader Dr. Helen Bould, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at the University of Oxford’s Department of Psychiatry.
“For a long time clinicians in the field have noted that they seem to see more young people with eating disorders from some schools than others, but this is the first empirical evidence that this is the case.”
For the study, the researchers used routinely collected data from Sweden to take account of individual factors that might make a person more likely to develop an eating disorder. They worked in factors such as parental income, whether parents had a history of mental illness, parental education, the number of siblings, and birth weight among others. Even allowing for all these characteristics, there were still variations between schools.
Girls in schools with a higher proportion of females as well as a higher number of college-educated parents did appear more likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder. Why this occurs, however, is still unclear.
“Unfortunately, this study can’t tell us what it is about schools that affects the rates of eating disorders: it might be an unintentional effect of the aspirational culture of some schools that makes eating disorders more likely; it might be that eating disorders are contagious and can spread within a school,” says Bould.
“On the other hand, it could be that some schools are better than others at identifying eating disorders in their students and ensuring they get diagnosed and treated.”
Due to strict laws on gender equality, Sweden does not have any single sex schools. Furthermore, it would be difficult to project these findings to the very different educational system in the UK, where there are selective all-girls schools that are likely to have a high proportion of highly educated parents. However, given the results in Sweden it is possible that such schools would have higher rates of eating disorders.