Eating disorders can affect siblings

Study found that due to strained relations between siblings, healthy sisters of women suffering from eating disorders suffer from higher levels of depressive symptoms.

September 22, 2015 00:38
2 minute read.

A depressed woman (illustrative). (photo credit: INGIMAGE)


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If one sister suffers from anorexia, bulimia or binge-eating disorder, the other sister’s healthy system is more likely to develop depression and a significant amount of emotional distress. This was discovered in new research that was approved as a master’s degree in social work thesis at the University of Haifa.

The study found that due to strained relations between the siblings, healthy sisters of women suffering from eating disorders suffered from higher levels of depressive symptoms.

“During treatment, maximum attention should be given to the relationship between the two sisters, strengthening it and transforming it from a negative, competitive interaction to one of support,” said Faculty of Social Welfare and Health Sciences Prof. Yael Letzer, who led the research together with Prof. Ruth Katz and Keren Berger (who wrote her thesis on the subject).

The study also found that the relationship between the sisters, one of whom has an eating disorder, is worse than between healthy sisters who don’t suffer from an eating disorder.

“The worse the relationship between the two sisters, the greater the level of psychological distress becomes for the healthy one, which in turn places her at risk of developing an eating disorder of her own,” said Letzer. According to the researchers, it is possible that the strained relationship between the sisters negatively impacts the healthy sister’s mental health.

In recent decades there has been a significant increase in the incidence of eating disorders, the most prominent of which are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder. These are particularly common among young women and involve multiple psychiatric and physical comorbidities (the presence of one or more additional disorders co-occurring with a primary disorder) and high mortality rates. Many studies have shown that sibling relations constitute the most continuous relationship of human life and are considered to be the most significant after that of parent and child.

Sixty girls and young women aged 13 to 31 participated, 30 of whom have a sister suffering from an eating disorder – a third with anorexia nervosa, 10 more with bulimia nervosa and the rest with an unspecified eating disorder. All the subjects were the sisters closest in age to the sister with the eating disorder, their age difference did not exceed 10 years and the two sisters had lived together at least five years before the study.

The results of the study revealed that, among girls and young women who have sisters with an eating disorder, sibling rivalry develops between the two sisters for the attention of their parents, In addition, the healthy sister must take part in the daily treatment of her sister, something that is liable to become a burden for her in her daily life and thereby lead to feelings of frustration, anger, hatred and fear,” It is very important to provide the healthy sister with information about the specific eating disorder and involve her as much as possible in her sister’s condition to facilitate her own coping with the disease,” concluded the researchers.

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