Rise in reported cases of anorexia among children, BMJ research shows

Posted 24/10/2019

New research published in the online journal BMJ Open this week indicates that the number of eight- to twelve-year-olds now treated for anorexia annually in hospitals and specialist clinics in the UK and Ireland is around double that of a previous estimate in 2006.

The researchers, who set out to update available estimates of the annual number of new cases of anorexia in the UK and Ireland among children and teenagers, concluded “that incidence rates for younger children have increased over time.”

While the study has limitations, the researchers recommend that “service providers and commissioners should consider the evidence to suggest an increase in the number of new cases in younger children.”

Commenting on the research, Beat said:

“We know from our own research and listening to the experiences of our supporters that it can often take a long while for early signs of an eating disorder to be spotted, for a referral to be made and for the treatment to begin. Therefore, while this rise in the number of young children being diagnosed with anorexia could mean that the condition is developing at an earlier age than in the past, it could also be due to improvement in the ability of healthcare professionals to identify children with anorexia.

“The real number of sufferers could be even higher across all age bands – the study was based on cases reported by psychiatrists, which not all treatment services in the UK and Ireland have. In addition, some young people may not be identified as having an eating disorder, so they may not receive a referral to a mental health service. The researchers also highlight that the focus of the study was on community-based cases, so this may have led to an under-reporting of cases first identified as an inpatient.

“We strongly endorse the recommendation of the researchers that service providers and commissioners should consider the possibility of an increase in anorexia among younger children. 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.

“Funding for research into eating disorders is very limited and so research funders should consider the need for further research into the development of earlier interventions. Full recovery from an eating disorder is possible and the sooner someone gets the treatment they need, the more likely they are to make a full and sustained recovery.”

You can read the full study here.

Beat