04/26/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Are Eating Disorders Contagious?

A study of U.S. high school students provides additional evidence that eating disorders may be contagious.

In a study, researchers found that binging, fasting, diet pill use and other eating disorder symptoms clustered within counties, particularly among female students.

"These findings confirm the strong social influences on female adolescents in the U.S. to be thin, sometimes using unhealthy behaviors to achieve this goal," the researchers write in the current issue of the International Journal of Eating Disorders.

Research in the 1980s in female college students first suggested that disordered eating behavior spread through "social contagion," demonstrating that binge eating clustered within sororities, Dr. Valerie L. Forman-Hoffman and Cassie L. Cunningham of the VA Iowa City Health Care System note in their report.

In the current study, they looked at whether a similar pattern would be seen among high school students at the county-wide level by analyzing nationally representative data on 15,349 high school students.

There was indeed a small but significant clustering effect, the researchers found. A pair of students from the same county was 4 percent to 10 percent more likely to share an eating-disordered behavior when compared to pairs in which each person came from a different county.

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