Right now, there are roughly 53,000 Australians living with anorexia nervosa, most of them women. Anorexia is the third most common chronic illness in girls and young women, currently affecting one in 20.
Now, a team of international researchers is investigating the role genetics play in the development of this often fatal eating disorder.
The Anorexia Nervosa Genetics Initiative (ANGI) is recruiting 13,000 people who are either living with anorexia or have recovered from it to donate blood and fill in an online survey. It’s hoped the results of the study — the largest and most rigorous of its kind — will lead to improved early detection of the illness, and ultimately a cure. At the moment, there’s no definitive treatment for anorexia.
The researchers involved, who are based in Australia, the US, Denmark and Sweden, will use blood donations from people who have had anorexia to compare their genes to those of people who have never experienced the illness.
It’s long been understood that a hereditary link, along with dieting, traumatic events and personality traits like perfectionism and food obsession, can contribute to anorexia. The large sample for the ANGI study will potentially reveal a more definitive “biological profile”, determined by genetic and environmental factors, that might predispose somebody to developing anorexia nervosa.
“If someone is being bullied at school for being a bit chubby and they lose a little bit of weight, they might go on to become anorexic, while for other people with very perfectionist traits it’s the need for control and certainty,” clinical psychologist Dr Anthea Fursland tells The West Australian.
Kate Horman is one of the Australians planning to take part in the study. The 27-year-old lawyer, who runs a website called The Lazy Law, suffered anorexia for a decade and says the illness nearly killed her.
"My mum is the only reason I am alive today - I was too sick to fight to stay alive myself. The number of times I would collapse - I lost count - and mum was just waiting for the day that I'd collapse and not get back up - that was her greatest fear," she tells The Daily Mail.