Rates of anorexia among pre-teen children in the UK and Ireland are around double those of a previous estimate from 2006, according to a new study.
Anorexia data is hard to come by, which is why researchers from King’s College London (KCL) set out to find out just how many children were struggling with the illness, which has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder.
Their research, published in the online journal BMJ Open, suggests that in 2006, the incidence rate of the eating disorder among eight- to 12-year-olds treated in hospitals and specialist clinics in the UK was approximately 1.5 cases in every 100,000 people. By 2015, the rate had risen to 3.2 cases in every 100,000.
Beat, the eating disorders charity, suggests the true figure is likely to be even higher, but the reasons why this might be are wide-ranging and complex.
Researchers set out to update available estimates of the annual number of new cases of anorexia in the UK and Ireland among children and teens. Current estimates are at least a decade old and mostly taken from GP records, rather than hospital or specialist clinics, which researchers said are likely to be a better source of information on how many children and teens have the condition.
The data drew on monthly records submitted by specialist psychiatrists to the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Surveillance System in the UK and Ireland for a period of eight months in 2015. Covering eight-year-olds to 17-year-olds diagnosed for the first time with anorexia, the data was used to calculate the rate of new cases per 100,000 young people in this age bracket.
During eight months, 305 new cases were diagnosed, most of them in young women (91%), from England (70%), and of white ethnicity (92%).
The researchers calculated an annual incidence rate of 26 per 100,000 girls and 2 per 100,000 boys, with an overall rate of 14 new cases for every 100,000 children and teens aged eight- to 17-years-old. The rate of new cases rose steadily with age, peaking at 16, with a substantial drop by the age of 17.
While it’s not fully known what causes anorexia, a range of factors are linked to the eating disorder, according to the NHS. These include: having anxiety, low self-esteem or an obsessive personality; being overly concerned with being slim; being criticised for eating habits, body shape or weight; sexual abuse; and if a family member has a history of eating disorders, depression or addiction.
Tom Madders, director of campaigns at YoungMinds, told HuffPost UK: “The reasons why children develop eating disorders are likely to be complex, but young people who have been criticised about the way they look, or those who have experienced trauma or anxiety, may be more at risk.”
Earlier this year, scientists also identified a set of specific gene variants linked to anorexia – suggesting it’s not purely a psychiatric illness and may also be linked to metabolism.
Beat’s director of external affairs, Tom Quinn, said the rise in rates could mean anorexia is developing at an earlier age, but could also be down to an improved ability to identify children with the eating disorder. The number of cases could be even higher across all age bands, he added, given the study was based on cases reported by psychiatrists, who do not operate in all treatment services in the UK and Ireland.
“Since 2016, substantial extra funding has been made available to the NHS in England for investment in specialist eating disorder services for under-18s, but not all commissioners and providers have prioritised these services sufficiently,” said Quinn, who added that funding for research into eating disorders is “very limited” and called for further research into earlier interventions.
In total, less than 1% of the total NHS budget is spent on children and young people’s mental health services, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).
Young Minds’ Tom Madders added: “The earlier someone is able to access help for anorexia, the more likely they are to fully recover. Although the government has invested extra money in community eating disorder services, it can still be too difficult for children and young people to get the help they need.”
Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on www.rethink.org.
- Beat. Adult Helpline: 0808 801 0677 and Youthline: 0808 801 0711 or email email@example.com (adults) firstname.lastname@example.org (youth support).