UK anorexia rates stable while bulimia fluctuates

Anorexia rates have been stable in Britain since the late 1980s but the number of bulimia patients has fluctuated, researchers said on Tuesday.

“There is still a large proportion of young women this affects,” said Laura Currin, a researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, referring to the two eating disorders.

Girls and young women are most at risk of anorexia nervosa, an illness in which patients are obsessed with being thin and terrified of gaining weight, and the binge and purge disorder bulimia.

In Britain, 4.7 per 100,000 people aged 10-39 have anorexia and 6.6 per 100,000 have bulimia. The highest incidence of both illnesses is among 10- to19-year olds.

The rates are similar to those in other European countries.

Currin and her colleagues, who reported their findings in the British Journal of Psychiatry, studied the General Practice Research Database to determine the incidence of the two disorders from 1988-2000.

While anorexia figures barely changed during that time, the number of bulimia sufferers rose in the early 1990s before peaking in 1996 and then dropping steadily.

“The incidence of anorexia nervosa over the 12 years studied has remained remarkably stable,” said Currin. “There was an increase in bulimia in the mid 1990s, but it has come back to the same levels as before.”

The researchers suspect the rise in bulimia could have been due, at least in part, to the media attention on the disorder and the late Princess Diana’s battle with bulimia.

People with symptoms of bulimia may have felt more comfortable about seeking help from their doctor because of the openness about the illness. Physicians may also have been more aware of signs of the disorder.

The researchers said special detection and care should be aimed at young girls and teenagers.

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Revision date: July 3, 2011
Last revised: by Sebastian Scheller, MD, ScD