Dentists discover alarming rise in eating disorders

June 6, 2006
Dental professionals say more information needed on treatment referrals.

SAN DIEGO, California--Healthy and beautiful looking teeth have a dramatic effect on a person's attractiveness to others as well as on his or her own self-image and self-esteem.

Studies have shown that appearance will have a strong effect on social and career success by influencing how a person is perceived. Yet many women (and men) who are desperate to attain the perfect image will destroy a beautiful smile, ruining their dental health while literally risking their own lives to be thin.

A study by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders reported that 5 to 10% of anorexics die within 10 years of contracting the disease. Up to 20% will be dead within 20 years. For women ages 15 to 24 years old the death rate associated with anorexia is 12 times higher than the death rate of all other causes combined.

Starvation can cause major organs to shut down. A heart attack is one of the most common causes of death from those suffering with an eating disorder. People can die from eating disorders at any body weight. Since depression accompanies anorexia, suicide is also a risk factor. Approximately 25% of all anorexics attempt suicide, and about 50% of anorexic deaths result from suicide.

As society's obsession with body image continues to grow, so does the prevalence of eating disorders. It is now estimated that eleven million Americans have an eating disorder. Eating disorders often remain extremely hidden.

Sufferers take great pains to hide their symptoms and activities due to the shame and stigma of their disease. The deterioration of dental health due to eating disorders is a critically important clue to successfully recognizing when someone may be affected by an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia.

Observing these symptoms could reveal the effects of eating disorders on dental health:

* Erosion of teeth enamel by stomach acid brought into the mouth due to purging
* Accelerated tooth decay and gum disease
* Infected nerves
* Cracked and painful lips, tongue and gums
* Bruised mouth and gums
* Dry mouth and swollen salivary glands due to frequent vomiting
* Deterioration of bones and gums supporting the teeth due to lack of nutrition

According to the Institute of Dental Research and Colgate Oral Pharmaceuticals, 28% of bulimia cases are first diagnosed during dental exams. Yet in a study conducted by Old Dominion University, fewer than 33% of dentists and 43% of dental hygienists currently assess patients for eating disorders.

Worse yet, fewer than 20% of dentists and 17% of dental hygienists refer these patients for treatment. Since the destruction of teeth and gums from anorexia and bulimia can start as early as three months after extreme dieting or "purging" (vomiting), dentists and dental hygienists may be the first health care providers to see the physical and oral effects of eating disorders.

San Diego-area dentist Howard Feffer, DDS says the effects of eating disorders on dental health are devastating.

"The pain and discomfort of poor dental health can significantly add to the physical and emotional suffering of a person with an eating disorder," said Dr. Feffer. "As medical professionals dedicated to the well-being of our patients, dentists need to watch for the signs and symptoms of eating disorders, and refer for treatment in programs like the one offered at Casa Palmera."

"Dental health professionals can be valuable allies in the fight to identify and treat eating disorders," says Dr. Terry V. Eagan, medical director and psychiatrist at Casa Palmera, a residential treatment center for eating disorders in Del Mar, California.

"Early diagnosis, referrals and treatment can significantly increase the chances of recovery for people suffering from eating disorders. If we can raise awareness, we'll get help to a greater number of people suffering from this devastating illness before it's too late," said Dr. Eagan.

Visit the Casa Palmera Web site for a complete list of symptoms, as well as advice for family and friends of those struggling with eating disorders, at