Social Impairment in Patients with Anorexia Nervosa

Woman in Field of Dandelions

Eating disorders can serve as the perfect storm for social issues, from their isolative nature to all that comes with co-occurring anxiety or depression. Recent findings indicate that biological factors also play a role in the social impairment of those with anorexia nervosa.

Connection Between Social Impairment & Anorexia Nervosa

A study published earlier this year [1] found that both participants with recent-onset anorexia nervosa and those who were recovered displayed impairments in social function, while only recovered participants had issues with social cognition.

These findings indicate that an individual’s social impairment might worsen over time after the beginning stages of anorexia nervosa. However, it is important to remember that there are many issues at play when it comes to eating disorders and development.

Another recent study [2] reported that individuals in recovery form anorexia nervosa showed less activity in the areas of the brain that process social cognition when introduced to stimuli. Researchers suggest that these “…biological impairments in social cognition may contribute to pathology in [anorexia].”

So which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Do these deficits lead to the development of disordered eating, or do the social withdrawal and isolation that so often accompany anorexia nervosa lead to cognitive impairments? More research must be conducted but it is likely a combination therein.

The Role of Co-Occurring Disorders

Aside from these neural and biological components, environmental factors can also play a significant role in social function and cognition.

Eating disorders often first appear in early adolescence, an age that can already be riddled with social awkwardness, hormonal changes, and uncomfortable transitions. Add disordered eating and any co-occurring mental health disorders, and it is not surprising that social impairments can develop.

Anorexia nervosa and many co-occurring disorders share social withdrawal and isolation as common symptoms. Due to the stigma still surrounding eating disorders, those with anorexia nervosa often experience shame and anxiety in their condition, only exacerbating the tendency to isolate.

This new research indicating the strong prevalence of social impairment in individuals with anorexia nervosa will likely pave the way for more research in this area, allowing us to better support those in recovery.


Courtney Howard Image - 2-17-16About the Author: Courtney Howard is the Director of Operations & Business Development at Eating Disorder Hope. She graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. from San Diego State University, holds a paralegal certificate in Family Law, and is a Certified Domestic Violence Advocate. After obtaining her certification as a life coach, Courtney launched Lionheart Eating Disorder Recovery Coaching in 2015 and continues to be a passionate advocate for awareness and recovery.


[1]: Mette Bentz, M.S., et al. (2017) “Impairment of Social Function in Young Females with Recent-Onset Anorexia Nervosa and Recovered Individuals.” Journal of Adolescent Health, Volume 60, Issue 1, Pages 23-32.

[2]: McAdams, C., Krawczyk, D. (2011). “Impaired neural processing of social attribution in anorexia nervosa.” Psychiatry Research, Volume 194, Issue 1, Pages 54-63.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on March 25, 2017
Published on