Anorexia among pre-teens is 50 per cent worse than previously thought, new research by King’s College London has found.
A study found a doubling in the number of eight to 12-year-olds suffering from the condition, when compared to previous estimates.
In 2006, the incidence rate of anorexia, or an eating disorder that would now be diagnosed as anorexia, among youngsters treated in hospital or specialist clinics in the UK and Ireland was around 2.1 in 100,000.
But the latest analysis indicates that the figure for children in this age bracket is actually 3.2 in 100,000.
Dr Agnes Ayton, chairwoman of the eating disorders faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “This study shows what psychiatrists have been seeing every day, which is a worrying rise in the number of young people suffering from the most deadly mental illness.
“The causes are complex, and much more research needs to be done in the light of these findings.
“Anecdotally, reasons could include increasing pressures on children in schools, and advertisements encouraging unrealistic ideas of body image.”
Anorexia is a serious eating disorder and mental health condition.
It mostly affects girls and young women and leads to people keeping their weight as low as possible by not eating, or exercising to excess.
Sufferers also often think they are fat when they are actually dangerously underweight.
For the new study, published in the journal BMJ Open, researchers, including from the Institute of Psychiatry in London and Imperial College London, examined data from the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Surveillance System.
This system details the number of youngsters with a new case of anorexia in contact with child and adolescent psychiatrists in the UK and Ireland.
The data showed there were 305 separate cases of anorexia among children and young people aged eight to 17 over an eight-month period in 2015. Nine in 10 were female, 70 per cent were from England, and 92 per cent were white.
Incidence rates of anorexia increased steadily with age, the research found, peaking at age 15 (58 cases per 100,000) for girls and age 16 for young men (five cases per 100,000).
Tom Quinn, director of external affairs at the eating disorders charity Beat, said services should certainly consider the possibility of an increase in anorexia among younger children, adding: “Full recovery from an eating disorder is possible and the sooner someone gets the treatment they need, the more likely they are to make a full and sustained recovery.”
Claire Murdoch, NHS national director for mental health, said: “This research adds to the growing evidence base which shows why the NHS is right to invest almost £100 million in these services in just two years as part of our NHS Long Term Plan - with record numbers of children and young people being treated and waiting times improving significantly.”