The pandemic may have triggered yet another burgeoning health problem: New research suggests that more than twice as many young people as is normal were hospitalized with eating disorders in the first 12 months of the COVID-19 surge in the United States.
There were 125 eating order-related hospitalizations of patients ages 10 to 23 at the University of Michigan's health system in the first 12 months of the pandemic, compared with an average of 56 during the same time period in 2017 and 2019.
The highest rates of admissions per month occurred between nine and 12 months after the start of the pandemic, and rates were still climbing when the study period ended in March 2021, according to the study in a prepublication of the journal Pediatrics.
"These findings emphasize how profoundly the pandemic has affected young people, who experienced school closures, canceled extracurricular activities, and social isolation. Their entire worlds were turned upside down overnight," said study author Dr. Alana Otto, an adolescent medicine physician at the university's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital. "For adolescents with eating disorders and those at risk for eating disorders, these significant disruptions may have worsened or triggered symptoms."
The numbers in the study may represent only a fraction of people with eating disorders who were affected by the pandemic, because only young people with severe illness from eating disorders were included, the researchers noted.
"Our study suggests that the negative mental health effects of the pandemic could be particularly profound among adolescents with eating disorders," Otto said in a university news release. "But our data doesn't capture the entire picture. These could be really conservative estimates."
Genetics, psychological factors and social influences are linked to eating disorders, and teens with low self-esteem or depression are at especially high risk.
Pandemic-related changes to teens' day-to-day lives -- such as school closures and cancellation of organized sports -- may disrupt routines related to eating and exercise and trigger unhealthy eating behaviors among those already at risk, according to Otto.
"A stressful event may lead to the development of symptoms in a young person at risk for eating disorders," she said. "During the pandemic, the absence of routine, disruptions in daily activities, and a sense of a loss of control are all possible contributing factors. For many adolescents, when everything feels out of control, the one thing they feel they can control is their eating."
The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health has more on eating disorders.
SOURCE: Michigan Medicine-University of Michigan, news release, July 8, 2021