It’s no secret that eating disorders are a big problem for a large portion of society. Indeed, it is thought that as many as 1.25 million people in the UK are suffering from these conditions.[i] What’s particularly worrying is that this number may be far greater, as there are many people who never disclose or show signs of these behaviours.
Eating disorders are also difficult to identify. Although some such as anorexia and bulimia often have very noticeable behaviours attached, no two cases are the same and these unhealthy actions can manifest in other ways. For example, someone may binge eat or eat normally and exercise obsessively to lose weight.
A significant threat
Eating disorders are also far more dangerous than many would imagine. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. This is because when people restrict their nutritional intake, they quickly become prone to potentially life-threatening conditions. Furthermore, suicide rates among those that suffer from eating disorders are typically higher, showing that these conditions heavily impact the quality and length of life of those who suffer from them.[ii]
The problem with eating disorders is that it’s very easy to assume that these only really affect adolescents. It’s true that this demographic is the most impacted by these conditions, but that doesn’t mean that older or even younger patients aren’t affected too.
Indeed, I was recently reading an article that presented some harrowing facts relating to eating disorders and older individuals. In this piece it revealed that among middle aged women, eating disorders are rife. It suggested that as many as 13% of women aged over 50 have eating disorder symptoms, and that 3.5% of women aged 40 and over have a definite eating disorder and are not receiving treatment.
The article also pointed out that although rates of anorexia do tend to plateau around age 26, bulimia rates don’t follow suit until age 47. Furthermore, binge eating disorder levels remain high until around age 70.[iii]
A watchful eye
What this means for us as dental professionals, is that we need to remain vigilant and look for signs of eating disorders when treating patients of all ages. Some of these signs should be easy to identify. For example, bulimia is likely to damage the enamel on teeth due to acid exposure from repeated vomiting. This can change the shape, size and colour of teeth. Other signs may be trickier to spot, but in the case of a disorder such as anorexia a patient may exhibit higher rates of decay or bleeding gums as they are not consuming the calcium or vitamins they need.[iv]
Of course, recognition is only one part of the story. As professionals we need to be able to provide an accessible and caring environment for these individuals to open up. If you think a patient may be suffering from an eating disorder you need to make them aware of the risks that these conditions bring to both their oral and general health. Could you invest in some leaflets for your practice that individuals can take home? Is there a way you can suggest that they see their GP to get help? It’s important to address the issue with sensitivity and without sounding judgemental or accusatory.
Eating disorders are highly personal psychological conditions that can affect people of all ages. By remaining vigilant and offering support, we can ensure that these behaviours have a lower impact on the oral health of sufferers.
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[i] Beat Eating Disorders. Statistics for Journalists. Link: https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/media-centre/eating-disorder-statistics [Last accessed July 19].
[ii] Beat Eating Disorders. Statistics for Journalists. Link: https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/media-centre/eating-disorder-statistics [Last accessed July 19].
[iii] The Hamilton Spectator. The Hidden Crisis: Eating Disorders Among Middle-Aged Women. Link: https://www.thespec.com/living-story/9441966-the-hidden-crisis-eating-disorders-among-middle-aged-women/ [Last accessed July 19].
[iv] NEDA. Dental Complications of Eating Disorders. Link: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/dental-complications-eating-disorders [Last accessed July 19].