27% of women between the ages of 12 and 18 have symptoms of an eating disorder. 31% of women in college have an eating disorder. They are the deadliest mental illness with mortality rates up to 20%. For years women, and men, with eating disorders have suffered in silence afraid to seek help out of shame. New studies are showing that eating disorders are not something a person causes, they are a genetic issue and sufferers should not feel ashamed for having one.
If a person’s mother or sister has anorexia, they are 12 times more likely to develop it themselves. A genetic link to anorexia has long been suspected by doctors, but it is only recently that science has caught up to theory. Researchers have recently been able to locate and identify the genetic markers which may indicate a predisposition to anorexia.
Throughout the past decade or so, as genetic technologies have increased in accuracy, various studies have been done showing a generalized link to anorexia. One such study was led by Dorothy Grice. In that study, Grice and her associates looked at twins and family studies to find a link. In families with at least 2 people suffering from anorexia, they were able to find commonalities in the family gene pool. This study did not find any specific gene but it did show, rather persuasively, that there is in fact a genetic link.
A more recent study led by Walter Kaye was able to “identify possible genetic variations that could influence a patient’s recovery from an eating disorder.” Kaye also states that the same variations may be linked to higher rates of anxiety and higher concern over mistakes; traits that are common among sufferers of eating disorders like anorexia. It is unclear at this time if the anorexia results from the anxiety, the anxiety results from the anorexia, or if both are just related side effects to the genetic variations. Another study by Kaye shows that patients recovering from anorexia often have abnormal levels of serotonin– which causes overall more negative moods and a high level of concern over performance and not making mistakes.
The authors of these studies are careful to point out that having a predisposition to an eating disorder does not mean you will get one. There are various social and environmental triggers that are also major influencers in the development of an eating disorder. If a person never experiences any of the triggers they are unlikely to develop symptoms.
If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, please reach out to your health care provider.