Dec. 8, 2021

Disordered eating doubles risk of premature mortality, research shows

15-year study discovers lifetime history of eating disorder increases risk of early death
empty plate and tape measure

In a first-of-its-kind study, Dr. Pardis Pedram, MD, PhD, a postdoctoral associate at the University of Calgary, followed a subset of the general population to study the impact of eating disorders. Of the nearly 32,000 people who participated in the study, just over 150 self-reported a diagnosed eating disorder. The study followed the participants for 15 years, linking with statistics from a Canada-wide mortality database. Previous studies generally involved small subsets of groups with eating disorders, limited only to those in treatment settings.

Dr. Pardis Pedram

Pardis Pedram studied the impact of disordered eating on mortality.

“Eating disorders are a serious mental illness,” says Pedram. “People tend to view eating disorders as having less significant impact on mental health, which leads to stigma and attempts to minimize symptoms and struggles.”

The study, published in Nutrients, showed that a lifetime history of an eating disorder increases risk of premature mortality nearly five times in the general Canadian population. This indicates a strong connection between eating disorders and mortality. Prevalence of an eating disorder nearly doubles the risk of mortality as compared with other self-reported mental illness.

The study included both those living with anorexia nervosa as well as bulimia nervosa. Eating disorders are associated with significant psychological, physiological, and interpersonal consequences. If left untreated, these illnesses can develop a persistent and long-term course resulting in a reduced quality of life, poor self-esteem, and social isolation. 

Eating disorders are multi-determined with a combination of socio-cultural, genetic, and individual factors contributing to both the development and maintenance of these disorders. The study emphasized the importance of responding early to disordered eating; early detection and intervention are critical to supporting those people struggling with body image and the relationship between food and weight.

"It’s important to move away from seeing eating disorders as just a weight issue,” says Dr. Gina Dimitropoulos, PhD, one of the supervisors for the project and associate professor in the Faculty of Social Work.

An eating disorder is about so much more than just a number. Anorexia and bulimia nervosa can interfere with every aspect of a person’s health and mental health, sense of self, academic and vocational success and their ability to connect with peers and family.

Stigma around eating disorders is pervasive, both in individuals living with the disorder as well as in those around them. Lack of understanding, and views of weight loss as being inherently positive versus concerning, are all contributing factors. This study indicates that eating disorders are not a trivial concern, and in fact have profound impact on quality of life and eventual mortality.

For more resources and information on eating disorders, please visit the following links:

Gina Dimitropoulos is an associate professor in the Faculty of Social Work and a full member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute at the Cumming School of Medicine. She is also a member of the Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research and Education, as well as the Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI).

Pardis Pedram is a postdoctoral associate at the Department of Psychiatry, Cumming School of Medicine, and is affiliated with the Hotchkiss Brain Institute and ACHRI.

Led by the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, Brain and Mental Health is one of six research strategies guiding the University of Calgary toward its Eyes High goals. The strategy provides a unifying direction for brain and mental health research at the university and positions researchers to unlock new discoveries and treatments for brain health in our community.

The Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research & Education is dedicated to advancing research and education on early identification, treatment and prevention of mental illness. The centre is located at the University of Calgary and is based on a close partnership between the Hotchkiss Brain Institute and the Department of Psychiatry.