LOS ANGELES — April Dunlap was 17 and weighed 165 pounds when she began a diet and exercise regimen. After three months, the 5-foot-5 teen had lost the 20 pounds she had hoped to shed. But she kept going.
When she hit 120 pounds, Dunlap’s mother worried that April was losing too much weight. The family’s doctor agreed. Four months after Dunlap’s diet began, she found herself in a treatment program for anorexia nervosa. After only 10 days, she had gained enough weight to be discharged from the hospital.
“If it wasn’t for my mother, it would have taken a lot longer for me to realize I had a problem,” said Dunlap, now 28.
Dunlap’s whirlwind experience with her eating disorder is becoming increasingly common today: A new breed of patient is getting treatment well before the disease drags the person toward starvation, sustained heart damage, weak bones, kidney damage, long hospitalizations and relapses.
Health researchers are seeing a glimmer of hope that the devastation wrought by eating disorders may be easing nearly 30 years after the illnesses first sprang into the public consciousness. Among the encouraging signs: More patients are getting medical treatment based on sound science; they’re getting it earlier in the course of the disease; and they’re recovering faster.
One eye-opening statistic appears to speak to the trend: A recent government analysis found that hospitalizations for people with the primary diagnosis of an eating disorder plunged 23 percent between 2007-08 and 2008-09. It was the first such decline since the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality began tracking such hospitalizations in 1999.
“Any little movement is significant, and this is a pretty big one,” said William Encinosa, a senior economist at the agency who worked on the report, published last year.
Eating disorders are loosely categorized as mental illnesses centered on obsessive behaviors regarding food. Anorexia involves self-starvation leading to excessive weight loss that damages the heart, bones, nervous system and organs. An estimated 1 in 200 Americans has the disease, and the death rate is 4 percent.
Bulimia is characterized by bingeing followed by self-induced vomiting, use of laxatives or excessive exercise to purge food and prevent weight gain. It affects 2 percent to 3 percent of Americans and is not thought to be as deadly as anorexia.
Surveys conducted by the National Eating Disorders Association show that Americans are more familiar with anorexia and bulimia now than they were 10 years ago. That awareness has been accompanied by a weakening of the stigma associated with eating disorders that might, in the past, have prevented some people from seeking help quickly, said William Walters, who manages the telephone hot line for the New York-based organization.
“Parents are being more proactive. Coaches are being more proactive about their athletes,” he said. “People feel they can ask for help.”
Encinosa credits the heightened awareness to a combination of education in schools, TV shows on the topic and public statements.