By Robert Preidt
"The take-away message for parents is that, first, there is good treatment available for their child who is struggling with anorexia," study author Dr. Stewart Agras, professor emeritus of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, said in a university news release.
"Second, the preferred treatment is family-based therapy in which parents help their child regain weight," Agras added.
"For a long time, people blamed families for causing anorexia and thought they should be left out of treatment," study co-author Dr. James Lock, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford, said in the news release.
"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," said Lock, director of the Comprehensive Eating Disorders Program at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford.
The study included more than 160 American and Canadian anorexia patients. They were between the ages of 12 and 18 and had been battling anorexia for an average of 13.5 months. Ninety percent of the patients were female.
Their average body weight was at least 75 percent of what is considered ideal, which meant doctors considered it safe for them to receive outpatient treatment, according to the release.
The participants were enrolled in two different types of family-based therapies. One program taught parents how to help their children eat normally and regain weight at home, while the other sought to resolve family problems.
Both programs consisted of 16 one-hour sessions over nine months. The effectiveness of the therapies was evaluated at the end of the nine-month treatment period and again a year later.
Patients in both therapy groups had similar rates of recovery from anorexia. But those in the program that focused on normal eating habits gained weight faster and required less hospitalization, the study found.
"We think that parents are able to disrupt the maintaining behaviors of anorexia long enough that the thoughts and cognitions that go with the disease diminish," Lock said.
The findings add to growing evidence that parental involvement is important in the treatment of teens with anorexia, the researchers said.
The study was published Sept. 24 in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.