Cases of anorexia are on the rise among preteen children in the UK and Ireland, the research suggests, with rates doubling in 10 years.
The study, which examined the cases of anorexia diagnosed by psychiatrists in hospitals or specialized clinics, estimates that 3.2 per 100,000 children aged 8-12 years met the criteria for anorexia for the first time in 2015, compared to 1.5-2.1 per 100,000 in 2006. Trends for older children cannot be examined due to the lack of comparable historical data.
The research follows the news of a doubling of hospital admissions for eating disorders in the last six years, with the surge driven by an increase in cases between girls and women of 20 years.
Sarah Byford, a professor of health economics at King's College London and co-author of the new study, said that those who are potentially vulnerable to developing an eating disorder may be exposed to risk factors at an early age, including the pressure on the diet or doing well in school.
Alternatively, he said, the figures could be a positive story: "This discovery could simply be that we are improving in identifying young people [with anorexia]," he said.
Tom Quinn, from the eating disorders group, has also called for more research into the trend and said health care providers should make sure they make the most of available resources.
"Since 2016, substantial additional funding has been made available to the NHS in England for investments in specialized services for eating disorders for children under the age of 18, but not all commissioners and suppliers have given sufficient priority to these services," he said. He said.
To conduct the study, published in the BMJ Open magazine, Byford and colleagues asked all counseling psychiatrists for children and adolescents residing in hospitals, universities or communities in the UK and Ireland to report the number of anorexia cases they had seen each month from February to September 2015.
If a clinician reported a case, they were subsequently asked to complete a questionnaire to allow the team to collect the patient's details and their diagnosis.
Over the eight months, 305 cases that met the requirements for the study were reported, with the vast majority of girls and people of white ethnicity.
To calculate the rate of new cases of anorexia, the team took into account that only half of the doctors responded and others did not complete the questionnaire.
The results suggest that among children aged between 8 and 17, there are 13.7 new cases of anorexia per 100,000 people a year. Among the girls the estimate was higher, at 25.7 per 100,000, with the age of diagnosis reaching the peak at 15 years.
The team then focused on people aged between 8 and 12, experiencing a significant increase in cases in recent years.
But Byford said it was important to look at the figures in context. "For younger children between the ages of 8 and 12 we are only talking about 250 [new cases a year]," he said.
Byford said both the latest figures and the previous estimates probably underestimated the true incidence of anorexia, stressing that many do not seek help, while older adolescents can go to adult services. The Royal College of Psychiatrists stated that fewer than a quarter of people with eating disorders in the UK receive care.
Dr. Agnes Ayton, president of the faculty of eating disorders of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: "This study shows what psychiatrists have seen every day, which is a worrying increase in the number of young people suffering from mental illness more deadly The causes are complex, and many other research needs to be done to better support those affected. Anecdotally, the reasons could include increasing pressures on school children and advertisements that encourage unrealistic body image ideas. "
Quinn also stated that the figures were probably underestimated and urged further research on previous interventions. "Full recovery from an eating disorder is possible and the sooner someone receives the treatment they need, the more likely they are to make a full and sustained recovery," he said.