Eating Disorders May Impact Women’s Long-Term Socioeconomic Stability

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Women who struggled with disordered eating during adolescence may suffer negative socioeconomic consequences during their early adulthood, according to a new study from the University of Utah.

The study found that young adult women with an eating disorder diagnosis during adolescence, or who self-reported disordered eating during this period, had lower earnings and less education than young adult women with no disordered eating history and were also less likely to own their home. The results of this research were published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.

Long-Term Risks of Eating Disorders Go Beyond Physical Health

The long-term health consequences of disordered eating have been well-established by many years of research. Anorexia nervosa can cause irreparable damage to the heart and other organs, permanently weaken bones and increase the risk of infertility and postpartum depression. Bulimia nervosa can result in esophageal damage, oral decay and chronic gastro-intestinal disorders.

However, minimal research exists on the possible non-health-related long-term consequences of eating disorders. The University of Utah researchers wanted to discover whether disordered eating impacted socioeconomic development in early adulthood and whether there were notable gender differences when it came to the possible impact of disordered eating on socioeconomic independence.

The results suggest that women who struggle with disordered eating in adolescence do suffer socioeconomic consequences in early adulthood, but that these negative consequences are not seen in young adult men with a history of eating disorders.

The study compared a group of 454 women and 166 men with an official diagnosis or self-reported history of disordered eating to a group of adults with no history of disordered eating. The results showed that young women who struggled with disordered eating in adolescence earned 13 percent less than their counterparts with no eating disorder history, were 27 percent less likely to own a home and had an average of 0.2 percent fewer years of education.

Jennifer Tabler, Ph.D. candidate at Utah’s department of sociology and lead author of the study, speculates that insecurity and concerns about weight and appearance—major features of eating disorders—continue to hinder women as they transition from adolescence into adulthood. These worries may affect the choices women make about their present situations and their futures, as well as impair their chances of success in school and work.

The physical consequences of disordered eating may also impact other areas of an adolescent girl’s life in ways that can have long-term consequences. For example, girls who suffer poor health and even hospitalization because of disordered eating are likely to underperform academically, which can impact their post-high school educational opportunities and eventually their job opportunities and earning potential.

Different Expectations for ‘Perfection’

These reasons do not fully explain why young men who suffered from disordered eating in adolescence do not experience similar socioeconomic consequences when they enter adulthood. Tabler and her co-author Rebecca L. Utz, Ph.D., speculate that differences in the symptomology and characteristics of eating disorders in men and women may account for these different outcomes in adulthood. Tabler and Utz cite two studies that suggest that while perfectionism is a feature of eating disorders in both genders, women may experience more pressure surrounding their appearance while men may experience more pressure surrounding socioeconomic achievement.

These results emphasize the fact that eating disorders are incredibly serious illnesses, with a range of potential long-term consequences that can affect a person’s physical and economic stability for years to come.

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