New research shows anorexia could be genetic.While the overall number of anorexia patients has been relatively steady over the years, doctors report seeing more young people and even those under the age of 10 with the disease.
Some physicians believe this new trend is a sign that anorexia may be genetic. These doctors believe that abnormalities in a small portion of the brain called the insula could put some people at a significantly higher risk for developing anorexia.
One of the doctors currently studying the effects of the insula on eating disorders is professor Bryan Lask, the founder of the eating disorder unit in London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital.
Lask told the BBC, "We are suspecting that there is an abnormality in the insula, it is not quite working properly and... there's a knock on effect around the body,"
the idea behind the insula theory is that in a normal body, the insula should adapt as a person goes through its puberty growth spurt. In a person with anorexia, Lask and his colleagues believe that a lack of elasticity in the insula results in impairment of sensory processing and distortion of body image.
This idea could change the way people view eating disorders and anorexia in particular. "For so long people thought that this is essentially middle class girls getting it. But it's not like that at all. It's an illness we do not choose to get," Lask told the BBC.
Lask has already made some significant progress towards proving his theory. He and his team have used photo imaging technology to peer deep into the brains of anorexics. During this research, Lask discovered that the insula of anorexics appears to be underactive.
Not only could this research lead to a better understanding of anorexia as a disease, it may also improve treatment. The current outcome for those diagnosed with anorexia is grim. Only half of those who have the disease are expected to recover. The remaining 50% will either struggle with the disease throughout their lifetime or die because of it.
Lask said most current treatments focus on refeeding and gaining weight. Once a patient is back to a healthy weight, they are often discharged without receiving counselling or treatment for the cause of their initial weight loss.
Part of this may be due to many people viewing diseases like anorexia as a choice or a character flaw rather than a disease that needs treatment.
These views mean that the UK has what some anorexics describe as revolving door treatment. Someone with anorexia loses too much weight, they are admitted to the hospital where they are nourished back to health, then released to do it all again. This type of treatment only focuses on the symptoms while ignoring the disease. It also puts anorexics at a greater risk of long term damage.
In an interview with the BBC, one anorexic woman said her eating disorder caused Osteoporosis at age 18. Now at 22 she is dealing with crumbling bones and a bad back.
Martin Davies, owner of Care UK, a private company, runs a number of specialised services for people of all ages with eating disorders. Said that pressure on NHS budgets has meant the UK is ill equipped to tackle eating disorders. "We're addressing the symptoms quite effectively, but we're doing so over and over again and in turn that will mean that a certain percentage of those cases will keep coming back," he said.
"I think that actually a well-intended strategy to keep people out of hospital will actually lead to more chronic and severe and enduring cases."