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Families can help their teens recover from anorexia, new study shows

anorexia-appleUpdated 10-2-14: In a just-published 1:2:1 podcast, Lock discusses this work in depth.

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9-24-14: A large new study comparing two treatments for anorexia nervosa offers a hopeful message to parents of teens affected by the eating disorder: Families can work with therapists to help their children recover.

The study, which appears today in JAMA Psychiatry and was led by Stanford's Stewart Agras, MD, was the first large randomized clinical trial to compare two forms of family-based treatment for anorexia. The study included 167 anorexia patients, aged 12 to 18, at six medical centers in the United States and Canada.

In both treatments tested, a trained therapist met regularly with the patient and at least one other member of his or her family. One type of therapy focused on teaching parents how to get their child eating again at home, a method that Agras and Stanford eating disorder expert James Lock, MD, PhD, have researched extensively in the past. The other approach was broader, with the therapist and the family exploring problems in family dynamics and how to solve them. Patients and families in both treatment groups received 16 one-hour therapy sessions over a nine-month period, and patients' recovery was assessed at the end of the therapy and again one year later.

Both therapies were equally effective in the long run, but the approach that focused on feeding was faster, and patients in that group were hospitalized fewer days during their treatment, which also made this method less expensive. The findings add to a growing list of scientific studies that are changing how physicians think about the families of patients with eating disorders, as our press release explains:

“For a long time, people blamed families for causing anorexia and thought they should be left out of treatment,” said Lock. “But this study suggests that, however you involve them, families can be useful, and that more focused family treatment works faster and more cost-effectively for most patients.” Lock directs the Comprehensive Eating Disorders Program at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford.

The need for good treatments for anorexia in teens is bolstered by prior research demonstrating that the disease becomes more difficult to treat in adulthood, as Agras noted:

“The longer anorexia goes on, the more difficult it is to treat,” he said. “A great many people live chronically restricted lives because of this disease — they plan their days around undereating and overexercise — and quite a few die. The idea is to treat the disorder in adolescence to prevent more adults from becoming anorexic.”

Lock is the c0-author of the book Help Your Teenager Beat an Eating Disorder, which is designed to help parents conduct the feeding-based treatment examined in this study. Lock and Agras have both contributed to textbooks and manuals on eating disorder treatment for health care professionals.

Previously: Stanford study investigates how to prevent moms from passing on eating disorders, A growing consensus for revamping anorexia nervosa treatment and Possible predictors of longer-term recovery from eating disorders
Photo by Santiago Alvarez

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