Detecting and treating eating disorder symptoms as early as possible is key to helping prevent children from developing a potentially life-threatening eating disorder, according to a new study published in the academic journal Appetite.
The researchers from Newcastle University in England found that children with more eating disorder symptoms at age nine had a higher number of symptoms at age 12. Therefore, identifying eating disorder symptoms in children as young as nine years old will allow for early intervention which could potentially save lives.
The six-year study identified three areas that parents, teachers, and doctors should watch for in children and preteens: boys and girls with body dissatisfaction, girls with depressive symptoms, and boys and girls who have had symptoms at an earlier stage.
Eating disorder symptoms can include rigid dieting, binge-eating, making oneself sick after eating, and high levels of anxiety about being fat or gaining weight. Many more children have symptoms without developing a full eating disorder; however, for those who do, eating disorders are very serious conditions and can be fatal.
And while eating disorders are rare at age nine (1.64 per 100,000), they are more prevalent at age 12 (9.51 per 100,000). It quickly escalates from there with the most common age for hospitalization being 15 years old for both males and females.
“This research was not about investigating eating disorders themselves, rather we investigated risk factors for developing early eating disorder symptoms,” said study leader Dr. Elizabeth Evans, Research Associate at Newcastle University’s Institute of Health and Society. “Most previous work on children and young adolescents has only looked at the symptoms at one point in time so cannot tell which factors precede others.
“Our research has been different in that we have specifically focused on the factors linked with the development of eating disorder symptoms to identify children at the greatest risk. Results suggest the need to detect eating disorder symptoms early, since a higher level of symptoms at nine years old was the strongest risk factor for a higher level of symptoms at 12 years old.”
For the research, children who had been enrolled in the Gateshead Millennium Study completed questionnaires about eating disorder symptoms, depressive feelings, and body dissatisfaction when they were seven, nine, and 12.
The findings highlight that some risk factors precede the symptoms of the condition and others occur at the same time. The researchers found that at age 12, boys and girls who are more dissatisfied with their bodies have greater numbers of eating disorder symptoms. Body dissatisfaction is a significant indicator of being at greater risk for the condition. In addition, girls with depressive symptoms at 12 years old tend to have greater numbers of eating disorder symptoms. This relationship was not seen in boys.
The research is being followed up by repeating the questionnaires with the same cohort of children at 15 years old. This will allow researchers to see what happened next for the adolescents who showed greater numbers of eating disorder symptoms at age 12.
“Future studies we do will investigate if our findings with young adolescents hold true for older adolescents, or whether we detect new risk factors. Both possibilities will further inform our efforts to promote and target early prevention for eating disorders,” said Evans.
Source: Newcastle University