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:
Females are much more likely than males to develop an eating disorder.
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.
Eating disorders are most prevalent in people between the ages of 12-25. However, eating disorders can occur in children and older adults.
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.
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.
People with mood disorders, such as major depressive disorder and anxiety disorders, are at greater risk for developing an eating disorder.
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.
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.
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.
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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 Last Updated: 5/18/2016