PARIS - Anorexia is typically considered a disease that afflicts adolescents and young adults. But more and more younger children in Western countries are now thought to be suffering from the disease, according to recent studies and experts of a phenomenon that has only recently been monitored closely.

A recent study published by British National Health Service (NHS) reported that some 100 kids from age 5 to 7 were hospitalized in the UK for severe anorexia over the past year. Some 100 other children aged 8 to 9 years-old suffer from the same plight. Overall, among the 2,000 young British from  5 to 15 years old were admitted to hospital for this eating disorder including nearly 600 under the age of 13. The phenomenon has largely been underestimated, and some health care facilities have refused to share their data on the young patients.

In Western countries, it is usually estimated that anorexia touches 0.5 to 2% of adolescents – and 9 out of 10 patients are girls. This eating disorder can cause serious health problems, including excessive weight loss, diminished appetite, amenorrhea (absence of menstrual cycles) and distortion of self-image.

Families’ incomprehension

For British experts, the multiplication of early anorexia cases could be partly linked, as it is the case for adolescents and young adults, to social pressure and to the idealized images of skinny models and celebrities that dominate popular culture.

Other countries have also registered a rise in the phenomenon. In parallel with the contrasting epidemic of child obesity, Canada and Australia have raised concerns about the rising number of prepubescent anorexia. And some cases are tragic, with five-year-olds or even four-year-olds who literally let themselves fade away, surrounded by family members who don’t understand what is happening. A recent Australian study conducted among children under 13 showed that many of the children suffering from anorexia were hospitalized in a very serious condition, a sign the disease is being diagnosed too late.

The same evolution is also registering in France. “In the past few years, we have been treating more and more cases of anorexia before puberty” confirms doctor Muriel Asch, working for the child psychiatry department of the Robert-Debré hospital in Paris. “It mainly afflicts children from 9 to 12, usually not younger, but we don’t have any precise statistics yet.”

According to the child psychiatrist, her patients suffering from anorexia show more and more of the same symptoms as their teen and young adult counterparts. “We see little girls who started a diet on their own at 9 or 10, and then developed the disease. This mechanism seems similar to the one we observe among adolescents.”

Professor Bruno Falissard, head of the Inserm research unit at Paris’ Cochin hospital, confirmed that prepubescent cases of anorexia are on the rise. But the phenomenon may not necessarily be so new. “We have known for a long time that anorexia can start at a very early age, even during the first months of a baby’s life. Cases of child anorexia used to be unusual, they’re becoming less and less exceptional.”

Professor Falissard cautioned about how to interpret the phenomenon. “Twenty years ago, eating disorders were considered very specific problems. Now they have become a societal issue,” he notes. “Like for any pathology, being able to better identify it can raise the number of registered cases.” Next step, says Falissard, is for hospitals to provide more complete data, and for new studies to be conducted across the whole population.

Read the original article in French

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