With one of the highest mortality rates out of any psychiatric disorder, anorexia nervosa is a devastating illness. Good news about the eating disorder is hard to come by, but recent research from Massachusetts General Hospital provides some much-needed hope: According to the study — but contrary to popular belief — the majority of people with anorexia do recover eventually; like most things, it just takes time and persistence.
According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Eating Disorders (ANAD), around one percent of American women will develop anorexia in their lifetime, and the disorder has a reputation for being one of the deadliest mental illnesses out there. The exact statistics vary depending on who you ask, but some researchers have estimated that the mortality rate is six times higher than the general population, and one in five deaths related to anorexia are by suicide.
Furthermore, research on the recovery rate has hitherto been less than promising. Relatively few long-term studies have been conducted comparing recovery rates across eating disorders, but a 1999 study from Harvard Medical School indicated that although about two-thirds of people with bulimia made a full recovery, that was true of just one third of people with anorexia. They were also less likely to make a partial recovery than those with bulimia, and relapse isn't uncommon.
However, a new study from Massachusetts General Hospital, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, have called this dismal picture into question. Beginning in 1987, researchers followed 246 participants with eating disorders — 110 with bulimia and 136 with anorexia — over the course of more than 20 years.
For the first decade, participants were interviewed every six months to a year; afterward, they were contacted for a final follow-up at some point between 20 and 25 years after the study began. For the purposes of the study, researchers defined recovery as going an entire year without symptoms.
The findings from the end of the first decade matched the aforementioned recovery trends: 68.2 percent of people with bulimia had recovered, while 31.4 percent of those with anorexia had stopped experiencing symptoms. But here's the cool part. When researchers contacted participants for the final follow-up, which took place an average of 22 years after the start of the study, the number of recovered people with anorexia jumped to 62.8 percent. (For bulimia, the recovery rate stayed at 68.2 percent.) Although some people who were recovered at the end of the first phase had relapsed by the end of the second, the number of people who recovered at a point between the two follow-ups was higher.
In the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, researchers wrote, "Recovery from bulimia nervosa happened earlier, but recovery from anorexia nervosa continued over the long term."
Outside the realm of psychology, the definition of recovery varies from person to person. A 2011 article in the New York Times spoke with several people who had or currently suffered from anorexia, and most agreed there was more to recovery than attaining a normal weight — it's just as important to have a healthy mindset regarding their relationship with food. As the Massachusetts General study shows, full recovery may take years or even decades to attain, but it is possible.
"These findings challenge the notion that eating disorders are a life sentence," said study author Kamryn Eddy, PhD, according to Science Daily. "While the road to recovery is often long and winding, most people will ultimately get better."
The first step to getting better is seeking out treatment. If you or a loved one suffer from disordered eating, check out the National Eating Disorder Association's Helpline. More information about eating disorders can be found at the National Institute of Mental Health's website.