Could anorexia nervosa be hereditary? This new study hopes to find out.

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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.

RELATED: Website uses woman’s anorexia recovery photos for “amazing” weight loss story.

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.

Kate Horman today (via Twitter)

"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.


Horman traces the beginning of her illness to a number of events in her life, including abuse she suffered as a child and having her father abandon her at a young age; but it was a cruel comment from her grandmother during her mid-teens that made Horman increasingly ashamed of the way she looked.

RELATED: Personal story: “Don’t judge my anorexia.”

"I was never overweight, but there was a photo taken of me in my bikini during the summer holidays and a few weeks later she [my grandmother] sent a letter in the mail saying she would no longer include me in the family photo album because the pictures were no longer a true reflection of me. I was utterly gutted, ashamed and heartbroken," she recalls.

Kate during high school, pictured with her mother (via Daily Mail)

At 17, Horman started taking drastic measures to reduce her weight. Although the weight loss made her feel more accepted and popular at her prestigious high school, the symptoms of Horman's anorexia were severe as her condition "spiralled out of control" — she experienced hair loss, constant fatigue, depression, and aches and chills in her body.

Thankfully, Horman has since turned her life around.

"I never thought I'd get over the anorexia and recover, but I have freed myself from this illness," she tells the Daily Mail.

Although anorexia is overwhelmingly more common in women, with one in eleven adult sufferers being male, one quarter of people living with anorexia before they hit puberty are boys. According to the Garvan Institute, the consequences of anorexia are fatal in 20 per cent of cases, while one in five sufferers will attempt suicide.

RELATED: “How my teenage sister’s anorexia affected me”

Locally, the aim of the study is to recruit at least 2200 Australian blood donors for the study over the next two years. If you want to participate, or know somebody who might, visit the ANGI website here.

For free help and support for eating disorders, contact the Butterfly Foundation‘s National Support line and online service on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673) or at [email protected]