Children as young as eight being diagnosed with anorexia

New study reveals that 11 Irish pre-teens are diagnosed with the eating disorder each year

Of the new cases of anorexia nervosa diagnosed, most were in young women (91 per cent). Photograph: iStock

Eleven Irish pre-teens are diagnosed with anorexia nervosa each year, according to the authors of a new study.

Children as young as eight are being diagnosed with the eating disorder, the study says, with the number of new cases among eight to 12 year olds in the UK and Ireland doubling since 2006.

Some 95 eight to 17 year olds are diagnosed with anorexia in the Republic each year, of whom 11 are aged between eight and 12, the authors estimate.

The study, published in BMJ Open journal, aims to estimate the incidence of the condition in young people in contact with child and adolescent mental health services in the UK and Ireland.


Current estimates are at least 10 years old and mostly derived from GP records, rather than hospital or specialist clinic services, which are likely to be a more reliable source of information, it says.

Some 305 cases of anorexia among eight to 17 year olds were reported over an eight-month surveillance period, based on psychiatrists’ reports to child and adolescent mental health teams.

Of the new cases diagnosed, most were in young women (91 per cent), from England (70 per cent), and of white ethnicity (92 per cent).

Seven Irish cases were reported; Ireland notified only 2 per cent of cases, despite having 8 per cent of the population. No age breakdown for the Irish cases was provided.

Extrapolating from this figure, and taking account of significant under-reporting of cases, there are an estimated 1,100 cases of anorexia a year among eight to 17 year olds in the UK and Ireland, including almost 100 in the Republic, according to Prof Sarah Byford of the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience in London.

Anorexia nervosa is one type of eating disorder negatively affecting a person’s relationship with food and body image. It causes the young person to become preoccupied with weight and body shape to the point that weight loss becomes a central feature of life.

Prof Byford said the rise in cases may be due to young people feeling under more pressure about their body image, though there is also a strong genetic component to the disease.

“It is also possible we are getting better at recognising anorexia nervosa, and that it can affect young children,” she told The Irish Times.

As a result of media coverage, parents and schools were getting better at identifying problem eating behaviours. This was welcome, as it allowed for earlier diagnosis and the possible avoidance of long-term serious eating disorders, she says.

She described anorexia as the “rarest but deadliest” of mental health problems among children.

According to the study, the rate of new cases rises steadily with age, peaking at the age of 16, with a substantial drop by the age of 17. For girls, this peak occurred at the age of 15, compared with 16 for boys. But rates fell by at least half by the age of 17 for both sexes.

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is a former heath editor of The Irish Times.