Eating disorders refer to a group of conditions defined by abnormal eating habits that may involve either insufficient or excessive food intake to the detriment of an individual's physical and mental health. Bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa, and binge eating disorder are the most common specific forms in the United States. Though primarily thought of as affecting females (an estimated 5–10 million being affected in the U.S.), eating disorders affect males as well (an estimated 1 million U.S. males being affected). Although eating disorders are increasing all over the world among both men and women, there is evidence to suggest that it is women in the Western world who are at the highest risk of developing them and the degree of westernization increases the risk.
The precise cause of eating disorders is not entirely understood, but there is evidence that it may be linked to other medical conditions and situations. One study showed that girls with ADHD have a greater chance of getting an eating disorder than those not affected by ADHD. One study showed that foster girls are more likely to develop bulimia nervosa. Some also think that peer pressure and idealized body-types seen in the media are also a significant factor. However, research shows that for some people there is a genetic reason why they may be prone to developing an eating disorder.
While proper treatment can be highly effective for many of the specific types of eating disorder, the consequences of eating disorders can be severe, including death (whether from direct medical effects of disturbed eating habits or from comorbid conditions such as suicidal thinking).
The physical signs of an eating disorder may first show up in the mouth. That is why it is important for members of the dental team to be alert for the oral signs of eating disorders, so they can provide referrals to health care professionals trained in dealing with such disorders, says Barbara J. Steinberg, D.D.S., clinical professor of surgery at Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia.
Dr. Steinberg is presenting here at the American Dental Association's 144th Annual Session with her colleague Shirley Brown, D.M.D, Ph.D., a practicing dentist and clinical psychologist specializing in eating disorders.
Experts say more than 5 million people in the United States suffer from eating disorders. 'The mouth reflects the rest of the body,' Dr. Steinberg states. 'A patient's oral status may be indicative of an eating disorder, particularly bulimia, when it involves chronic bingeing and vomiting.'
'Dentists can treat the oral effects of eating disorders, but they need to keep the patient's overall physical and mental health in mind, too,' Dr. Brown says, 'particularly since anorexia and bulimia are associated with a fairly high rate of suicide.
By referring patients with suspected eating disorders to appropriate health care professionals, dentists and the dental team may play a crucial role in helping to save their patients' lives.'