Experts Say Early Identification Is Key For Children With Eating Disorder Symptoms

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Identifying and treating the signs of eating disorders as early as possible is essential for preventing children from developing a clinically diagnosable eating disorder, according to new findings published in the journal Appetite.

A team of researchers from Newcastle University in England say that children who had more eating disorder symptoms at the age of nine also reported more symptoms at age 12. Based on this, they believe that identifying and treating eating disorder symptoms in children as young as nine can be a practical way to prevent the condition from further developing.

The study, which ran over the course of six years, identified three specific areas that parents, teachers, and doctors can be watchful for when assessing the physical and mental health of children at risk of developing eating disorders.

These three factors are:

  • Body dissatisfaction in boys and girls
  • Girls with depressive symptoms
  • Boys and girls who showed symptoms at earlier ages

The lead researcher on the study, Dr. Elizabeth Evans, a research associate at Newcastle University’s Institute of Health and Society, explains:

“This research was not about investigating eating disorders themselves, rather we investigated risk factors for developing early eating disorder symptoms. Most previous work on children and young adolescents has only looked at the symptoms at one point in time so cannot tell which factors precede others.”

“Our research has been different in that we have specifically focused on the factors linked with the development of eating disorder symptoms to identify children at the greatest risk. Results suggest the need to detect eating disorder symptoms early, since a higher level of symptoms at nine years old was the strongest risk factor for a higher level of symptoms at 12 years old.”

The researchers say that eating disorders are exceedingly rare in children at the age of nine, but it becomes more prevalent by age 12. They also note that the most common age for hospitalization due to an eating disorder is 15 years old.

For the study, the team reviewed completed questionnaires about eating disorder symptoms, depressive feelings, and body satisfaction from children included in a birth cohort called the Gateshead Millennium Study. The questionnaires were completed at ages seven, nine, and 12.

Among the discoveries in the study, the team found that some risk factors for eating disorders precede the development of the symptoms themselves, while others appear simultaneously.

The findings also show that boys and girls who are most dissatisfied with their body at age 12 reported higher numbers of eating disorder satisfactions. Girls with depressive symptoms at age 12 also had greater numbers of eating disorder symptoms. However, this was not found in boys with depressive symptoms.

The team plans to follow up the study with the same cohort of children at 15 years old, to further evaluate the development of eating disorders among the most vulnerable age group for these disorders.

Dr Evans says, “Future studies we do will investigate if our findings with young adolescents hold true for older adolescents, or whether we detect new risk factors.

“Both possibilities will further inform our efforts to promote and target early prevention for eating disorders.”

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