About one in every 20 girls enrolled at high schools in the Tokyo metropolitan area suffers from anorexia nervosa, according to a government-funded survey.
The eating disorder, linked to stress, primarily affects adolescent females.
The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry-funded survey, which studied subjects in comparison to a healthy growth curve of height and weight in Japanese children, also found a rise in the number of girls suffering from the disorder in recent years.
The survey was conducted by a research group led by Hisako Watanabe, a pediatric psychiatry lecturer at Keio University. A nationwide survey on the disorder is to be conducted within the year.
The survey was conducted on 219 girls who graduated from private junior high schools in fiscal years 1987, 1992 and 1997. It followed the changes in their height and weight through a three-year period until their senior high school years. Each year covered a period from April to the following March.
The survey showed that 5.6 percent of those graduating in fiscal 1987, 6.7 percent in fiscal 1992, and 5.5 percent in fiscal 1997 were diagnosed as having very low body weight.
The survey also showed that the ratio of third-year senior high school students with an unhealthy body weight compared with the fixed growth-curve standards increased dramatically, from 14.1 percent in fiscal 1987 to 26.7 percent in fiscal 1992 and 27.4 percent in fiscal 1997.
Watanabe said it is necessary to quickly diagnose the disorder, also known as neurogenic emaciation, in school medical check-ups, and that victims be given the necessary care and treatment before the illness progresses, as the long-term repercussions of the disorder include sterility and osteoporosis.
Anorexia nervosa is characterized by a misperception of body image, in which individuals often believe they are overweight even if they are extremely underweight. Many sufferers of the disease literally starve themselves, or exercise obsessively, in an effort to remain thin.
The disorder mainly occurs in female adolescents and is caused by a variety of factors, including constant media exposure to unrealistic body images, social pressure, relationship stress and academic strain.
“We want to shed light on the real situation of the disease further so that we can take measures swiftly to make teachers and other school-related people aware of it,” a health ministry official said.
The ministry aims to reduce the number of people suffering from the disease as part of its maternal and child health program.
Researchers say that about one in 100 adolescent girls suffers from this disorder, but the number has been increasing rapidly in Japan, the United States and Europe.
The disorder is unique to developed countries.
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