People With Eating Disorders Are At A Higher Risk Of Suicide, Study Says

By May Wilkerson 01/28/16

That number could be higher if a member of the family also has an eating disorder.


People suffering from eating disorders may be at a higher risk of suicide, according to a new study from Sweden. That risk could be significantly higher when a close family member also has an eating disorder.

This isn’t the first study to find a link between eating disorders and suicide attempts. But past research may have been flawed, because many people with eating disorders suffer from co-occurring psychiatric disorders, which could also put them at higher risk of suicide.

This study also examined a much larger population, over two million people born between January 1979 and December 2001, who were followed from the age of six. Among the test population, there were 15,457 females (1.40% of all females) and 991 males (0.09% of males) with eating disorders, including 7,680 females and 453 males with anorexia, and 3,349 females and 61 males with bulimia.

A follow-up study found that the risk for a suicide attempt or death by suicide was significantly higher among both males and females with any eating disorder, compared with those who did not have any eating disorder. This increased risk of suicide remained higher even when researchers adjusted for co-occurring psychiatric conditions, like depression, anxiety, or substance use disorders.

"The associations remained significant, suggesting the elevated risks of suicide attempts in eating disorders are not entirely accounted for by psychiatric comorbidity," wrote the authors, wrote the study authors, who are based in Sweden and the US.

Having a sibling with any eating disorder also increased the risk for suicide attempts. Though somewhat less so, the risk was also higher if someone had a more distant relative with an eating disorder, like a half-sibling or cousin. The findings suggest that this risk is more likely the result of genetic factors instead of family environment, said the authors. "These results suggest that heritable and common risk factors for both eating disorders and suicide attempts may exist and be useful for risk identification," they wrote.

"Clinicians and family members should remain vigilant for signs of suicidality in all individuals with eating disorders, regardless of the presence of other psychiatric disorders,” said study lead Shuyang Yao, from the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden. “Risk for suicide was increased in both anorexia and bulimia nervosa, encouraging vigilance in both disorders.”

Eating disorders carry the highest risk of mortality of any mental illness, according to Kamryn T. Eddy, PhD, co-director of the Eating Disorders Clinical and Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. This includes death by suicide. "From a suicide prevention standpoint, these findings underscore the importance of longitudinal safety assessment in those with eating disorders, and also of routinely ascertaining family psychiatric history in all patient care,” she said.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.