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Women with Eating Disorders More Likely to Have Reproductive Problems

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

According to a Finnish study, women with eating disorders have a greater risk of reproductive problems. Millions of women in the United States alone suffer from eating disorders, and some estimates place the number of women who will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives as high as 10% of the worldwide population. Although eating disorders do occur at most ages and in both genders, they are most commonly diagnosed in women of childbearing age.

The University of Helsinki and the National institute for Health and Welfare carried out the study by examining 15 years of data from over 11,000 women. The startling findings included the fact that women with anorexia were only half as likely as their peers to have children. The study also revealed that women with binge-eating disorder are three times as likely as their peers to have miscarriages.

In addition, bulimics have twice as many abortions as their peers. The exact cause for this was not clear, but it could be that because eating disorders can cause irregular periods; these women may also be inconsistent with contraception use. It’s possible that it could also have something to do with bulimics’ tendency to exhibit impulsive behavior.

Worse still, women with eating disorders continue to have fertility issues even after they appear to have recovered. Women who have ever had an eating disorder, even if they are now recovered, still find it harder to conceive as well as to carry a pregnancy to term.

The study certainly highlights the need for more research on this apparent link, because it’s possible that early recognition and effective treatment for eating disorders may help prevent fertility problems. Currently, only about 1 in 10 people with eating disorders receive treatment. Early intervention and long term treatment may help reduce the ultimate effects of the eating disorder, so increasing the number of those getting treatment is important.

Of course, fertility problems are only one reason why it’s crucial for women with eating disorders to seek treatment, and women should discuss treatment options with their doctors for the physical effects of the eating disorder as well as the psychological and psychosocial effects. Social well-being is just one area of mental health that can be dramatically impacted by an eating disorder. Eating disorders cause numerous physical health problems as well, including problems with heart health, osteoporosis, dehydration or electrolyte imbalances, and tooth decay, to name a few.

People suffering from eating disorders can call the National Eating Disorders Hotline at 1-800-931-2237 for information on treatment and referrals, or they can talk to their doctor about possible treatment options. If you suspect that someone you know has an eating disorder, talk to him or her about it. Eating disorders are serious illnesses that can be life-threatening, so don’t wait to get help.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.