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Eating Disorders Partially Due to Genetics

June 22, 2009
From KMGH TV Eating Disorders Partially Due To Genetics Genes, As Well As Society, Anorexia, Bulimia Doug Schepman, 7NEWS Video Journalist POSTED: 2:22 pm MDT May 18, 2009 UPDATED: 11:09 pm MDT May 18, 2009 DENVER -- Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are deadly diseases with the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness. In the past, family and home environment were thought to be the primary cause. However, studies over the past 10 years have discovered a genetic link, meaning that about half of the risk is inherited. This revelation has helped guide treatment and remove the shame for patients and families. "It's not a choice, it's an illness and it kills people," said Heather, a 20-year-old who has battled anorexia. Heather came to the Eating Recovery Center, in Denver, weighing just over 50 pounds. She spent her teenage years in and out of hospitals battling anorexia. "If I didn't go to Denver Health and come here afterwards, I wouldn't be here today," Heather said. She was starving herself as a way of dealing with stress and anxiety, which is the same story for fellow patient, Erin, who is 27. Their behaviors had nothing to do with body image or weight. Doctors now know that a primary root of eating disorders can be traced to the human genome. "We know that there are multiple genes and they are closely related to anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorders," said Dr. Ken Weiner. And this genetic link means eating disorders, along with their associated brain diseases, can be inherited. "I don't have anyone, honestly, in my family that has an eating disorder, even in the extended family. But I do see quite a bit of both depression and anxiety issues," Erin said. "If your mother or your sister have anorexia and you are a young woman, you are 12 times more likely to have anorexia nervosa in your lifetime and four times more likely to have bulimia nervosa," said Weiner. Weiner is the medical director of the Eating Recovery Center, which provides intensive residential, out-patient, and other levels of eating disorder treatment. He said the mere presence of the genes is not enough to trigger the disease. "Genes load the gun, life pulls the trigger," said Weiner. "With anorexia nervosa, if you never go on a diet or precipitously lose weight due to a medical condition, you never develop anorexia nervosa." Psychological and social factors still account for about half the risk for eating disorders. At the center, patients work to resolve those issues through counseling and art therapy, while learning positive associations with food through cooking and shopping classes. Overcoming this bio-psycho-social disease is a long-term process. Both Erin and Heather are only halfway to their target body weight of about 105 pounds. But for Heather there is comfort in knowing that the onset of the disease is not her fault. "It definitely helps me feel less ashamed, like it wasn't my choice, that I didn't choose to have this, that it was just how I was born, and it's something that I have to deal with," said Heather. Weiner points out that the genes which lead to addiction are not the same genes that increase your risk of having an eating disorder, which is a compulsive disease. Right now there's no test to see which people have the genes associated with eating disorders. Doctors use family history to determine who's at a greater risk. If you would like more information about the Eating Recovery Center, go to EatingRecoveryCenter.com. Facts About Eating Disorders 1. Eating disorders affect millions of women. -- Ten million women in the United States struggle with an eating disorder. Eighty percent of American women are dissatisfied with their appearance. Four out of 10 Americans have either suffered or have known someone who has suffered from an eating disorder. 2. Eating disorders are the deadliest mental illness with mortality rates of up to 20 percent. The mortality rate of eating disorders is 12 times higher than the annual death rate due to all causes of death among females ages 15-24 in the general population. Death is most commonly due to suicide, heart failure, or other medical complications associated with the eating disorder. 3. Eating disorders can lead to significant health issues. When left unchecked, anorexia nervosa will starve the body of essential nutrients and can cause liver or kidney failure, heart problems and osteoporosis. Bulimia nervosa can do significant damage to the mouth, stomach and esophagus and can lead to serious dental problems, peptic ulcers or gastric and esophageal ruptures. 4. Anorexia and bulimia have a high rate of relapse, as much as 30 to 50 percent. Because anorexia and bulimia are complicated, multi-faceted diseases, individuals with eating disorders may require ongoing treatment to achieve a lasting recovery. 5. Eating disorders don't discriminate. Twenty-seven percent of girls ages 12 to 18 have significant eating disorder symptoms. Thirty-one percent of female college students have an eating disorder. Source: EatingRecoveryCenter.com and the National Eating Disorders Association.