New Anorexia Research Indicates Genetics Are Involved

Filed under: Medical Conditions, In The News, Research Reveals: Tweens, Research Reveals: Teens

anorexia

If you're anorexic, are you going to pass it on to your children? Credit: Corbis

Anorexia isn't contagious like a virus is, but according to the latest research, some children might be more susceptible to contracting the disease due to their family's gene pool.

In the largest genetic study of anorexia to date, researchers at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia discovered that anorexia risk might be determined by genetics. According to the new study published in the Nov. 16 issue of the journal Molecular Psychiatry, genes could account for more than half of a person's susceptibility to the eating disorder.

Past studies done on twins have led researchers to believe that anorexia is highly heritable, yet the genetic basis of anorexia has remained elusive. In this study, led by Dr. Hakon Hakonarson, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Center for Applied Genomics at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, the research team set out to discover why.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, anorexia has the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric disorders, and successful treatment is challenging. It is estimated that anorexia affects almost one percent of women in the United States. Understanding the genetic influence would help medical professionals to better treat this disease that afflicts millions of Americans.

Maggie Baumann, a marriage and family therapist intern in Newport Beach, Calif., began her struggles with anorexia and compulsive exercising when she was a teenager. She is now a 49-year-old mother of two daughters in their early 20s. Anorexic during her second pregnancy (sometimes referred to as pregorexia), she continued with her disordered eating and exercise habits throughout her daughters' childhoods.

"There were no chips, no cookies, nothing fun or kid-like in the house," she tells ParentDish in a phone interview. "One day (my husband) just took over and said, 'We can't live like this.' He's cooked every meal ever since. Had my husband not intervened when the girls were in second and third grade, they would both have eating disorders."

Baumann and her twin brother were given up by their biological mother at the age of 6 months. They, along with their older brother, were adopted by another family, and she later learned that her birth mother suffered from post-partum depression during those first 6 months of her life. She died of anorexia at the age of 42. Baumann never knew this until she sought recovery decades later, which she finds to be evidence supporting the claim that anorexia can be genetic.

"When we're talking about eating disorders being passed on genetically, we're not talking about genetic determinism," which are things like the color of our eyes, Dr. Ovidio Bermudez, medical director for the Eating Recovery Center in Denver, tells ParentDish in a phone interview. "We're talking about gene environment interaction. Nature and nurture."

The nature of eating disorders is so complex and genetics is only one component. In fact, Hakonarson and his team have just scratched the surface. According to MSNBC, "[T]he researchers said that while these genetic variations are promising leads, future studies with even more participants are needed to confirm the findings, as well as to tease out more such genetic markers for anorexia."

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.