Anorexia and bulimia nervosa are caused by a complex combination of genetic and environmental factors. The development of the disorders can occur at many different ages, often emerging during adolescence, but sometimes after a significant life event or milestone, such as a divorce.
A recent study published in the January issue of Archives of General Psychiatry illustrates that another significant life event can heighten the risk of developing an eating disorder. Certain complications occurring while a baby is still in the womb may predict the likelihood of developing an eating disorder.
The study’s observational reports suggest that problems during neurodevelopment and obstetric complications may indicate a higher risk of eating disorders in adult life. For instance, the adequacy of nutrition during pregnancy and in the first few weeks of life may influence the nutritional status and programming of appetite that extends throughout life.
The study was conducted by Angela Favaro, M.D., Ph.D., and colleagues at the University of Padua in Italy. The researchers performed an analysis of 114 females with anorexia nervosa, 73 with bulimia nervosa and a control group of 554 that were all born at Padua Hospital between 1971 and 1979.
In addition, the researchers examined data from an additional sample of 99 people with anorexia and 51 with bulimia from an outpatient clinic. The data was merged and data about obstetric complications was obtained from hospital archives.
Several obstetric complications were associated with a development of eating disorders in adulthood. Maternal anemia and diabetes increased the odds of developing anorexia. Neonatal conditions such as hypothermia, heart problems, tremors and hyporeactivity (a less than normal response to stimuli) were also associated with the development of anorexia.
Placental infarction, neonatal hyporeactivity, early difficulties with eating, and low birth weight were associated with the development of bulimia.
The study also revealed a connection between the number of complications and the age at which the children developed anorexia nervosa. A child with more than five complications developed the disorder at an average age of 16.3, and children with fewer complications developed the disorder at approximately 17.5 years.
The findings are significant because they may show a causal link and an indication that impairment in neurodevelopment could be a cause of developing eating disorders, explain the authors.
The factors influencing the development of eating disorders are varied with each instance of the disorders. This study’s findings indicate that there may be opportunities for targeting individuals who have a perinatal history of complications for education and early intervention regarding disordered eating patterns.