For years, especially recently, the entertainment and marketing industries have been blamed for causing eating disorders in adolescent and pre-teen girls. The general opinion is that the constant bombardment of images and commercials portraying the "perfect" skinny body makes young girls feel inadequate, causing many to strive for the same physical perfection. The fashion industry has received much of the focus and blame in the past few months as runway models have fallen ill and some have even died as the result of eating disorders. But new research points the finger in a completely different direction.
In 1995, Walter Kaye, MD, of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center received funding from the Price Foundation to investigate the genetics of eating disorders. As of September 2006, the international collaboration has collected information from over 600 families in which two or more members suffer from an eating disorder. The results may be nothing short of a breakthrough. They suggest that both anorexia and bulimia may be "as heritable as other psychiatric illnesses such as schizophrenia, depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder."1 Two chromosomes in particular (1 and 10) have been linked to both anorexia and bulimia, and several other genes have been identified that may pre-dispose people to these eating disorders. The initial results were so compelling that the National Institute of Health has awarded a $10 million grant to the same group of international researchers in order to continue the study.
Adding substance to these findings are several other studies that have taken place in Minnesota, Virginia, and Australia involving twins. In these studies, two factors were considered: shared and unique environments. Shared environment includes things like parenting styles and socioeconomic status. Personal trauma and participation in sports are examples of unique environments. The results consistently pointed to genetic and unique environmental factors as causes and triggers for eating disorders. One study, conducted at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill reviewed information from over 31,000 individuals in the Swedish Twin Registry and determined that genetics accounts for 56 percent of a person's likelihood to develop an eating disorder.
Surprisingly, this kind of information isn't entirely new. It's been a well-known fact in the medical community for decades that eating disorders are more common among families. Formal studies have revealed that if someone's mother or sister has suffered from anorexia, that person is twelve times more likely to develop the disorder herself. The difference now is that the researchers are becoming more proactive, searching for the reasons behind the facts, and the research itself is becoming more focused.
If this initial evidence is further supported by continued research, it could mean drastic changes for people who suffer from eating disorders, and their families. Currently, the coverage offered by most insurance companies is extremely limited. But if eating disorders are discovered to be primarily genetic, the "cap" or maximum amount an insurance company will pay for treatment of the disorder is greatly increased. In addition, the discovery that some people may be genetically pre-disposed to eating disorder means that treatment programs could be developed more specifically, and prevention efforts could be more focused as well.
Another benefit of this research is that it can be used to alleviate the feeling of shame often felt by people struggling with eating disorders. There's still a stigma associated with anorexia and bulimia. Many sufferers suffer alone, ashamed and afraid, feeling as though they're weak and/or vain. As evidence of genetic pre-disposition is confirmed, counselors can use that information to help patients work through the negative feelings that make recovery much more difficult.
1Source: "Genetics Research: Why is it important to the field of eating disorders?" by Craig Johnson, PhD, Director, Eating Disorders Program, Laureate Psychiatric Clinic and Hospital