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Researchers Look into Role of Genetics as Possible Cause of Anorexia, Other Eating Disorders
02/27/2007

DALLAS – Anorexia nervosa is far more complex than simply wanting to be slim, and many experts now believe that genetics play a significant role in anorexia and other eating disorders, says Urszula Kelley, M.D., medical director of the Eating Disorders Program at Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas.

“Social pressure alone doesn't cause eating disorders,” Dr. Kelley said. “Certain events can trigger episodes of anorexia, binge eating or bulimia, but we know that the causes of the disease long-term are much more complex than any one factor.”

People with eating disorders develop abnormal eating habits that threaten their well-being and even their lives. Similar to the way genetics predispose some people to alcoholism, young girls may be more at risk for developing eating disorders if they carry certain types of genes, Dr. Kelley said. That message is the theme of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, Feb. 25 to March 2. The awareness campaign – “Be comfortable in your genes. Wear jeans that fit the REAL you.” – emphasizes that body type is strongly influenced by biological factors and highlights new discoveries about the role of genetics in the development of eating disorders.

“The more we can learn about the role of genetics in this disease, the better we'll be able to diagnose and treat it,” Dr. Kelley said. “That's so important because the disease causes serious medical problems in many patients and can even be deadly for some.”

For Melissa Fuller, emotional turmoil in 2004 triggered a relapse of her eating disorder, which she had struggled with for many years. A recent college graduate at the time, Fuller had suffered from anorexia and bulimia throughout high school. Her condition caused compulsive exercising up to six hours a day and led to taking dangerous amounts of laxatives and diet pills.

Fuller turned to the Eating Disorders Program at Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas for help.

“I'm doing much better now, but I'll be in recovery the rest of my life. That's something people with eating disorders have to realize,” said Fuller, who now eats a well-balanced, nutritious diet and exercises in moderation. “It's like I was trapped in a cocoon, and after going through the treatment program everything has opened up for me. I feel free of many of the eating problems I had before, but I know it's something I'll always have to deal with.”

The exact causes of Fuller's disease aren't clear, Dr. Kelley said. Conditions like hers often co-occur with other psychiatric disorders such as depression, substance abuse, and anxiety disorders. Those diseases have genetic components that put some people at increased risk for developing the conditions. Many researchers now believe the same applies to eating disorders, which affect up to 4 percent of women in the United States.

To investigate the biological components of the disease, the National Institute of Mental Health recently began funding a study of families with a history of anorexia nervosa to find which genes contribute to anorexia nervosa. The study is being conducted at 10 sites around the world. Researchers expect to find out more about anorexia and the other two most common eating disorders, bulimia and binge-eating disorder.

“It's important to continue learning more about the disease because it has a significant impact on Americans of all ages, especially adolescent girls,” Dr. Kelley said. “People who suffer from eating disorders deal with a wide range of health problems. They risk developing heart conditions, kidney failure and serious digestive problems.”

While genetics play a role in the disease, people who suffer from an eating disorder need to know that treatment programs can work, said Anne Masson, a clinical social worker in the Eating Disorders Program at Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas.

“Through counseling and medical care, we can provide the tools people need to recover from this disease and find hope for the future,” Masson said. “No one should be suffering in silence and fearing that there's nothing that can help them.”

For Melissa Fuller, recovery meant undergoing counseling and treatment for medical problems caused by the disease.

“The disease is something that will always be with me,” she said, “but I now know that I have the tools to stay healthy and stay on the path to recovery.”

About eating disorders, according to the National Eating Disorders Association:

  • Warning signs of an eating disorder include dramatic weight loss, excessive exercise, skipping meals, being extremely fussy about food, and food 'disappearing.' Be aware of frequent trips to the bathroom and evidence of laxative use.
  • The three most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia and binge eating disorder.
  • Anorexia is a serious and potentially lethal illness characterized by the relentless pursuit of thinness, emaciation and the obsessive fear of gaining weight. Personality traits, such as perfectionism and anxiety, are often present in childhood before the eating disorder develops.
  • Bulimia involves recurrent binge eating followed by intentional purging or vomiting, which is done to compensate for the excessive intake of the food and to prevent weight gain. Purging can include inappropriate use of laxatives, diuretics or other medication; excessive physical exercise; or fasting .
  • Like people with bulimia, those with binge eating disorder experience frequent episodes of out-of-control eating. The difference is that binge eaters don't purge their bodies of excess calories.

About the Eating Disorders Program at Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas
The PHD Eating Disorders Program is a multidisciplinary program that uses a variety of specialists to treat patients with eating disorders. Cardiologists monitor patients' heart health during and after their hospital stay. Radiologists perform bone density scans to confirm the eating disorder has not compromised the patient's bone strength. Gastroenterologists are consulted to confirm the patient's sickness has not caused other digestive problems. Services include: individual and group counseling; psychological evaluation and intervention; therapeutic meals; medical supervision; relapse prevention; living skills education; nutritional counseling; aftercare support and a host of other tools. For more information about the Eating Disorders Program at Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas, call 214-345-7355.

About Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas
Established in 1966, PHD is the flagship hospital of Presbyterian Healthcare System, a member of the faith-based, nonprofit Texas Health Resources system. PHD is a recognized clinical program leader, providing technologically advanced care to patients. The 866-bed facility has approximately 4,000 employees and an active medical staff of more than 1,000 physicians. For more information about PHD, visit www.texashealth.org/phd.

About Texas Health Resources
Texas Health Resources is one of the largest faith-based, nonprofit health care delivery systems in the United States and the largest in North Texas in terms of patients served. THR controls 13 affiliated hospitals and a medical research organization, and is a corporate member or partner in seven additional hospitals and surgery centers. THR’s family of hospitals includes Harris Methodist Hospitals, Arlington Memorial Hospital and Presbyterian Healthcare System.  For more information about Texas Health Resources, visit http://www.texashealth.org/.

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