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Science Could Erase Stigma of Anorexia

Better understanding of genetic, biological causes could lead more to feel comfortable seeking treatment

FRIDAY, Jan. 11 (HealthDay News) -- When people understand the genetics and biology of anorexia nervosa, they are less likely to blame those with the eating disorder for their illness, says a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) study.

"This is a potentially important finding because it suggests that wide dissemination of information about the biological and genetic underpinnings of anorexia nervosa could help decrease the blame-based stigma that is associated with the disorder," study author Michele A. Crisafulli said in a prepared statement.

It's believed that stigma creates additional difficulties for people with anorexia, including making them more reluctant to seek treatment.

In people with anorexia nervosa, obsessive fears of being fat lead to abnormal and dangerously low body weight. Self-starvation, extreme weight loss and related medical complications can lead to death. More people die from anorexia than from any other mental illness, according to background information in a news release about the study, published online Jan. 9 in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.

In the study, 115 undergraduate nursing students were given either an information sheet outlining the known genetics and biology of anorexia or one emphasizing sociocultural factors associated with the disease.

After reading the sheets, the students rated the extent to which eight factors -- poor living habits, parenting, biological factors, lack of social support, self discipline, society's thin ideal, genetic factors and vanity -- contributed to anorexia.

Students who read about the sociocultural factors were more likely to agree that parenting, vanity and lack of social support were causes of anorexia. Unlike those who read the genetics/biology sheet, they were also more likely to believe that people with anorexia are to blame for their condition.

"This study suggests that even a nugget of accurate biological information can influence how health care professionals perceive the illness," study senior author Dr. Cynthia M. Bulik, director of UNC's Eating Disorders Program, said in a prepared statement.

"It opens up new horizons for accurate information campaigns to help the public understand that people with anorexia nervosa are not to blame for their illness and that biology plays a role," Bulik said.

More information

The U.S. National Women's Health Information Center has more about anorexia nervosa.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, news release, Jan. 9, 2008

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