A new study conducted by researchers at the Hospital for Sick Children and ICES has found a concerning increase in hospitalizations due to eating disorders, with the impact being disproportionately prevalent among pediatric males, adolescents, and individuals diagnosed with eating disorders not related to anorexia or bulimia.
The large study, published in JAMA Network Open and focusing on the Canadian population, particularly in Ontario, looked at a 17-year period from 2002 to 2019. The research found a staggering 139% growth in hospitalizations for eating disorders among children and adolescents, totaling 11,654 cases. Furthermore, an increase in diagnoses of mental illness in association with each hospitalization was recorded. The largest absolute increases were seen among females and individuals in full adolescence, but other groups of individuals were also disproportionately affected.
Dr. Sarah Smith, a physician in the Department of Psychiatry at SickKids and an intern at CIEM, who completed the research as a fellow at SickKids, stated, “Our study found that an increasing number of pediatric eating disorder patients with characteristics traditionally considered atypical are becoming severe enough to require hospitalization.”
The most affected groups included males with a 416% increase, young people between 12 and 14 with a 196% increase, and subjects with eating disorders other than anorexia and bulimia nervosa showing a 255% increase. The authors of the study suggested possible causes for the disproportionate growth in these rates, such as an overall increase in the prevalence of eating disorders, particularly among less typical populations, improved screening and diagnoses, and a reduction in stigmatization of eating disorder-related illnesses.
The study’s authors admitted a limitation in the collection of provincial data on eating disorder diagnoses and use of services by patients outside of care facilities, potentially resulting in a significant underestimate of rates. Dr. Smith emphasized the importance of healthcare providers being aware of the growing number of children and adolescents in need of intensive inpatient care due to eating disorders, and the need to identify and intervene in these patients at an earlier stage of the disease.
Further evaluation of the effectiveness of existing treatments and programs for pediatric patients suffering from eating disorders with these characteristics was also highlighted as necessary.
The study’s findings indicate a pressing need for improved awareness, intervention, and treatment of eating disorders, especially among atypical populations.