Prenatal and early life stress and risk of eating disorders in adolescent girls and young women

Eur Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2016 Nov;25(11):1245-1253. doi: 10.1007/s00787-016-0848-z. Epub 2016 Apr 15.


Females are more likely than males to develop eating disorders (EDs) in the adolescence and youth, and the etiology remains unclear. We aimed to estimate the effect of severe early life stress following bereavement, the death of a close relative, on the risk of EDs among females aged 10-26 years. This population-based cohort study included girls born in Denmark (from 1973 to 2000) or Sweden (from 1970 to 1997). Girls were categorized as exposed if they were born to mothers who lost a close relative 1 year prior to or during pregnancy or if the girl herself lost a parent or a sibling within the first 10 years of life. All other girls were included in unexposed group. An ED case was defined by a diagnosis of EDs at ages of 10-26 years, including broadly defined bulimia nervosa, broadly defined anorexia nervosa and mixed EDs. Poisson regression models were used to estimate the incidence rate ratio (IRR) between exposed group and unexposed group.A total of 64453 (3.05 %) girls were included in the exposed group. We identified 9477 girls with a diagnosis of EDs, of whom 307 (3.24 %) were from the exposed group. Both prenatal and postnatal exposure following bereavement by unexpected death was associated with an increased overall risk of EDs (IRRprenatal: 1.49, 95 % CI: 1.01-2.19 and IRRpostnatal: 1.34, 95 % CI: 1.05-1.71). We observed similar results for subtypes of broadly defined bulimia nervosa (IRR: 2.47, 95 % CI: 1.67-3.65) and mixed EDs (IRR: 1.45, 95 % CI: 1.02-2.07).Our findings suggest that prenatal and early postnatal life stress due to unexpected death of a close relative is associated with an increased overall risk of eating disorders in adolescent girls and young women. The increased risk might be driven mainly by differences in broadly defined bulimia nervosa and mixed eating disorders, but not broadly defined anorexia nervosa.

Keywords: Bereavement; Cohort study; Eating disorders; Postnatal stress; Prenatal stress.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Child
  • Denmark / epidemiology
  • Feeding and Eating Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / epidemiology*
  • Registries*
  • Risk Factors
  • Stress, Psychological / epidemiology*
  • Sweden / epidemiology
  • Young Adult