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(6) Anorexia

What are the prevalence rates of anorexia nervosa

For several reasons, precise numbers are difficult to attain. First, it is difficult to know with certainty the number of people affected by anorexia because, unfortunately, many who struggle with this condition do not seek help.

Therefore, the information provided by epidemiologists reflects only the number of cases of anorexia actually seen in treatment. In addition, reported prevalence rates tend to underestimate the total number of cases of anorexia due to the fact that many patients exhibit some of the symptoms of anorexia, but do not meet the full diagnostic criteria for the condition. Indications are, however, that anorexia is a rare but serious eating disorder that appears to be increasing in prevalence over time.

Scientific studies estimate that approximately 1% of the general population will develop anorexia at some point in their lives, and at least one of every 200 people will receive a clinical diagnosis of anorexia.

We know that anorexia is less common than other eating disorders (such as bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder) and that it is significantly less common than other forms of mental illness (such as depression and attention-deficit disorder). Nonetheless, anorexia ranks as the third most common chronic illness among adolescents, following obesity and asthma.

Prevalence rates are the highest among adolescent girls and young women. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 0.5–3.7% of females will be diagnosed with anorexia nervosa in their lifetime. However, partial-syndrome anorexia is far more common. Researcher’s report that close to 5% of adolescent girls has this “mild form” of anorexia nervosa, displaying some, but not all, of the clinical symptoms of the disorder.

Numerous reports indicate that incidence of anorexia has dramatically increased in the last few decades. Indeed, studies both in the United States as well as abroad seem to point to an increase in every decade since the 1960s. It is difficult to know for sure, however, whether the increase in rates of anorexia is the result of more accurate diagnostic methods, improved record keeping over time, an increased willingness of people to seek treatment, or an actual increase in the number of people with the illness.

One landmark review of medical records, published in 1991 by the American Journal of Psychiatry, would seem to confirm an actual rise in the rate of the condition. The chief researcher conducting this review, Dr. Alexander Lucas, utilized medical records that spanned a 50-year period (1935 to 1985) from the renowned Mayo Clinic, as well as those of the surrounding community of Rochester, Minnesota.

He found that on average, the incidence rate increased by 35% for every 5-year period beginning in 1950 and ending in 1984. For those of us who work in the eating disorders field, and certainly for those whose lives have been affected by this disorder, this is indeed an alarming trend and a matter of great concern.


Epidemiologist - A person who studies the presence of disease in a population.

Anorexia - ranks as the third most common chronic illness among adolescents, following obesity and asthma.

Partial-syndrome anorexia - A pattern of disordered eating in which a patient reports symptoms such as marked dietary restriction, weight preoccupation, and purging, but which fail to meet all of the diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa.

Incidence - The number of new cases of a disease in a defined population within a specified period of time.




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