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A risk factor is something that increases your likelihood of getting a disease or condition. It is possible to develop eating disorders with or without the risk factors listed below. However, the more risk factors you have, the greater your likelihood of developing eating disorders. If you have a number of risk factors, ask your doctor what you can do to reduce your risk.

A number of factors can play a role in your risk of developing an eating disorder. Emotional stress, generated by significant life events, often precedes the onset of an eating disorder in susceptible individuals.

The following factors have been found to increase the risk of developing an eating disorder:

Gender

Females are much more likely than males to develop an eating disorder.

Socioeconomic Factors

People living in economically developed nations appear to have a higher risk for developing eating disorders. Studies suggest that, within economically developed countries, the risk for bulimia may be higher among lower socioeconomic groups.

Age

Eating disorders are most prevalent in people between the ages of 12-25. However, eating disorders can occur in children and older adults.

Genetics and Biochemical Factors

Studies suggest that abnormalities in brain pathways involving the neurotransmitter serotonin persist after recovery from certain eating disorders. These findings lead to speculation that serotonin and other similar chemical substances within the brain may have a role in anorexia. Some genes have also been found to be associated with eating disorders in certain people.

Personality Factors

Certain personality factors seem to increase a person’s risk of developing an eating disorder. People with eating disorders tend to be perfectionists who have high expectations of themselves and others. In spite of being high achievers, they may have low self-esteem and identity problems. They are prone to seeing everything as good or bad, or as a success or a failure. This thinking carries over to issues about weight, where thin is good and thinnest is best.

Fear of change and difficulty coping with stress are common in people who have eating disorders. They may also fear criticism, avoid sexuality, or act out impulsively. Among people with eating disorders, there are high rates of personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder, avoidant personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, and narcissism.

Emotional Disorders

People with mood disorders, such as major depressive disorder and anxiety disorders , are at greater risk for developing an eating disorder.

Family Influences

Negative influences within a family can play a role in eating disorders. Some studies suggest that eating disorders are more prevalent in people where one or both parents are overprotective, detached, critical, rigid, or ineffective at resolving conflict.

The risk for developing an eating disorder is increased when the person has parents who have psychiatric disorders or with alcohol use disorder or other addictive substances. Research suggests that daughters of mothers who have a history of eating disorders may be at higher risk. Eating disorders are also more common in families where there is pressure to be thin.

Social and Cultural Pressures

Beauty standards in Western culture focus on youth and thinness. Images of thin, beautiful, successful people are constantly portrayed in the media. These and other pressures, such as pressures from appearance-obsessed peers and romantic partners, lead to higher rates of eating disorders in people in Western culture.

History of Abuse

Researchers are investigating the link between childhood abuse and the development of eating disorders. Some studies have found an association between women who have been sexually abused and bulimia.

References

American Psychiatric Association. Practice guideline for the treatment of patients with eating disorders. National Guideline Clearinghouse website. Available at: http://www.guideline.gov/content.aspx?id=9318. Updated 2011. Accessed May 18, 2016.

Anorexia nervosa. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated November 19, 2015. Accessed May 18, 2016.

Bulimia nervosa. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated November 19, 2015. Accessed May 18, 2016.

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). American Psychiatric Association; 2013.

Eating disorders: About more than food. National Institute of Mental Health website. Available at: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/eating-disorders/index.shtml. Updated 2014. Accessed May 18, 2016.

Eating disorders in over 8s: management. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence website. Available at: https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg9/chapter/1-Guidance. Updated January 2004. Accessed May 18, 2016.

Hudson JI, Hiripi E, Pope HG Jr, Kessler RC. The prevalence and correlates of eating disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Biol Psychiatry. 2007;61(3):348-358.

Johnson JG, Cohen P, et al. Psychiatric disorders associated with risk for the development of eating disorders during adolescence and early adulthood. J Consult Clin Psychol. 2002;70:1119-1128.

Myers D. The relationship between sexual abuse and eating disorders. Vanderbilt University, Psychology Department website. Available at: http://healthpsych.psy.vanderbilt.edu/HealthPsych/CSA_and_bulimia.html. Accessed May 18, 2016.



Last reviewed May 2016 by Michael Woods, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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