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School gender mix affects eating disorder diagnosis

Friday April 22nd, 2016

The proportion of girls to boys in a school affects the risk of girls developing eating disorders, according to a new study.

Girls who attend schools with few boys are more likely to be diagnosed with a disorder than those with a more equal mix of girls and boys, researchers found.

A UK-Swedish study also revealed that the diagnosis is also more likely if former set of girls have university-educated parents, while the latter tend to have parents with lower qualifications.

The research says even after taking into account individual factors that would make someone more likely to develop an eating disorder, there were still differences in the rates of eating disorder according to the school attended.

Researchers from Oxford University, UCL, the University of Bristol, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm used routinely collected data from Sweden to come to their conclusions.

The findings are published in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

The research team accounted for factors as diverse as parental income, whether parents had a history of mental ill health, parental education, the number of siblings and birth weight among others. Even allowing for all these characteristics, there were still variations between schools.

Lead researcher Dr Helen Bould, child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Oxford, Department of Psychiatry, said: “Eating disorders have an enormous effect on the lives of young people who suffer from them - it is important to understand the risk factors so that we can address them.

“For a long time clinicians in the field have noted that they seem to see more young people with eating disorders from some schools than others, but this is the first empirical evidence that this is the case.

“Unfortunately, this study can't tell us what it is about schools that affects the rates of eating disorders: it might be an unintentional effect of the aspirational culture of some schools that makes eating disorders more likely; it might be that eating disorders are contagious and can spread within a school.

“On the other hand, it could be that some schools are better than others at identifying eating disorders in their students and ensuring they get diagnosed and treated.”

Sweden does not have any single sex schools, due to its strict laws on gender equality.

It is difficult to extrapolate these findings to the different educational system in the UK, where there are selective all-girls schools that are likely to have a high proportion of highly educated parents. However, given the results in Sweden it is possible that such schools would have higher rates of eating disorders.

Eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and other eating disorders, affect 5.7% of adolescent girls – almost two in a class of 30.

Bould H, De Stavola B, Magnusson C et al. The influence of school on whether girls develop eating disorders. Int. J. Epidemiol. (2016). doi: 10.1093/ije/dyw037

Tags: Europe | Infancy to Adolescence | Mental Health | UK News | Women's Health & Gynaecology

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