Pandemic saw spike in eating disorder-related hospitalizations in teens, study finds

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Doctors who reported nearly double the number of hospital admissions for teens with eating disorders are warning it may be the tip of the iceberg as the data only reflects those with severe cases. The study, which appears in a pre-publication of Pediatrics, saw 125 hospitalizations among patients ages 10-23 at Michigan Medicine over the first 12 months of the pandemic. 

On average, the hospital sees about 56 per year. Over the course of the pandemic, admissions increased each month with the most recorded between nine and 12 months into the pandemic. 

“These findings emphasize how profoundly the pandemic has affected young people, who experienced school closures, canceled extracurricular activities, and social isolation,” Alana Otto, M.D., M.P.H., an adolescent medicine physician at University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, and lead author, said. “For adolescents with eating disorders and those at risk for eating disorders, these significant disruptions may have worsened or triggered symptoms.” 

Otto, who also warned the data “doesn’t capture the entire picture” and “could be really conservative estimates,” added that the feeling loss of control could have also played a role. 

“For many adolescents, when everything feels out of control, the one thing they can control is their eating,” she said. 

Another factor could have been delayed care for patients experiencing non-COVID-19 illnesses, as many health services were limited during lockdowns. Several studies have linked worsening mental health in teens to the pandemic, with some hospitals reporting a rise in teen suicide attempts and other health crises. The rise in demand for psychiatric services are seeing some face unprecedented wait times, further contributing to the crisis.

“Although our findings reflect the experience of a single institution, they’re in line with emerging reports of the pandemic’s potential to have profound negative effects on the mental and physical health of adolescents across the globe,” Otto said. 

Otto said the findings suggest that physicians should be aware of potential risks for eating disorders and monitor patients for signs and symptoms.  

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