By monitoring electrolyte levels, researchers have discovered eating disorders more than a year before a diagnosis. This would enable patients to start receiving treatment sooner.
Dr Gregory Hundemer and his team's findings revealed that people with electrolyte abnormalities were twice as likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder at a later date. Those with severe irregularities were five times more likely to be diagnosed.
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The case-control study, published in JAMA Network Open, analysed Ontario health data between 2008 to 2020 with patients 13 years and older.
Their discovery could lead to preventative treatment for approximately 1 million Canadians who suffer from diseases like anorexia and bulimia, which compromises their quality of life and often leads to death.
"Disordered eating patterns are often present well before the diagnosis of an eating disorder is made. This is due to a variety of reasons, including denial, lack of self-awareness, social stigma, and shame surrounding the diagnosis, which may limit forthcoming discussion with healthcare providers and delay diagnosis," said Hundemer, an assistant professor at the Faculty of Medicine's School of Epidemiology and Public Health.
"This study shows that electrolyte abnormalities may serve as a red flag to identify individuals at high risk who may benefit from more timely in-depth screening into an eating disorder diagnosis," he added.
Electrolytes are minerals that include potassium, sodium, magnesium, and phosphate, along with acid-base disturbances. They are essential to body minerals that help regulate the body's chemical reactions, including maintaining the balance between fluids inside and outside of cells. Electrolyte abnormalities commonly occur well before an eating disorder diagnosis is made.
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Hundemer zeroed in on these levels by screening targeted individuals.
"Eating disorders substantially reduce the quality of life and increase the risk of health complications and death, so timely screening results and earlier diagnosis and treatment can improve long-term prognosis," said Hundemer, who is also a nephrologist at The Ottawa Hospital.