HCA Virginia - March 04, 2019

What it means and how it could change diagnosis and treatment

No parent wants to watch their child battle an eating disorder. But while it may feel isolating, remember that a surprising number of U.S. teenagers are going through the same thing. More than 5 percent of teens between the ages of 13 and 18 will suffer from some form of an eating disorder, such as anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder, at some point in their lives. That's more than 2 million teenagers.

The cause

If you ask most people why eating disorders are so common, they will likely cite unrealistic expectations of weight and thinness - with some mention of fashions, models and celebrity media coverage. But if that were the only reason, a lot more people would have an eating disorder. So while outrageous beauty standards don't help, research has shown that eating disorders stem from a number of other factors: biological, psychological, environmental and sociocultural. And now, DNA has been added to the list.

New findings

Recent research is showing a link between genetics and eating disorders. Twin, adoption and family studies are discovering strong evidence that genes may predispose someone to developing an eating disorder. In fact, those who are related to someone with an eating disorder are seven to 12 times more likely to develop an eating disorder.

According to recent WebMD studies, eating disorders could be "as strongly genetically linked as many other major psychiatric disorders, like schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder."

What it all means

The link between genes and eating disorders doesn't necessarily mean that one single gene will be found to cause anorexia or bulimia. However, discovering a number of genes that can make someone more susceptible will help identify and diagnose eating disorders earlier, which greatly increases the chances of successful treatment.

Understanding more about the effect of genetics can also lead to new and improved treatments, including more effective pharmacotherapies — and improved insurance coverage for those medications.

In addition, discovering how genes impact eating disorders can help educate the public, reduce stigma, improve therapy and categorize these disorders under the medical/psychological umbrella, instead of being labeled as a "social phenomena."

Research is constantly evolving, but further studies linking genetics to eating disorders will likely start improving our approach to diagnosis and treatment.

If you think your child may be developing or struggling from an eating disorder, deciding to seek help is the first step toward recovery. The Reflections Eating Disorders Treatment Center at Dominion Hospital, matches you with the services and programs that best fit your individual needs. A Reflections intake coordinator is available 24/7; for a free, confidential and immediate assessment of your situation, call (703)538-2886.