EXPERT REACTION: Severe childhood infections may increase eating disorder risk in teen girls

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Having a serious infection during childhood appears to increase the risk of developing an eating disorder for teenage girls, according to international scientists. They looked at the health records of more than half a million Danish girls, and found those hospitalised with a severe infection were at increased risk of anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and other eating disorders later, compared with girls who had not been hospitalised with an infection. And girls who had not been hospitalised but who had been treated with anti-infective drugs were also at increased risk of eating disorders later, compared with girls who had not had an infection treated with anti-infective drugs.

Journal/conference: JAMA Psychiatry

DOI: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2019.0297

Organisation/s: George Mason University, USA

Funder: The Swedish Research Council, the Klarman Family Foundation, the Foundation of Hope: Research and Treatment of Mental Illness, the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, the Stanley Medical Research Institute, the European Research Council, The Lundbeck Foundation, the Independent Research Fund Denmark.


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Expert Reaction

These comments have been collated by the Science Media Centre to provide a variety of expert perspectives on this issue. Feel free to use these quotes in your stories. Views expressed are the personal opinions of the experts named. They do not represent the views of the SMC or any other organisation unless specifically stated.

Dr Elena Schneider is a pharmacist by training and works as a NHMRC Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne, Pharmacology & Therapeutics.

We all have experienced that when we are sick we lose our appetite. But how being sick affects eating habits long-term has only recently been discussed. There has been recent talk on how infections trigger autoimmune responses and affect our eating behaviour. 

This study is the latest in a series of cohort trials designed to evaluate the association of hospitalisation for infection and the treatment of anti-infective agents with the risk of an eating disorder diagnosis. The authors looked at all the girls born in Denmark from 1989 to 2006. They observed that an infection in childhood requiring hospitalisation and three or more courses of anti-infectives is associated with an increased risk of eating disorders, including anorexia and bulimia. 

What we can take home from this study: 1) There is a complex interplay between the immune system and eating behaviours. 2) Infections and inflammation can trigger behaviour changes which 3) in vulnerable individuals can affect eating behaviour long-term.   

What we still do not know: Are infections the cause of the development of eating disorders? More studies need to be conducted to establish explicit links between infections and eating disorders. This could be helpful in diagnosing and treating eating disorders.

Last updated: 24 Apr 2019 4:30pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.

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