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Hoarding Can Start Early, But Signs Are Hard To See In Teens

Hoarding disorder is generally diagnosed in older adults, after their inability to discard things and their anxiety over possessions leave them unable to function. But it may take root much earlier in life, though psychiatrists say they're just starting to figure that out.

Hoarding symptoms may look different in teenagers than they do in adults, researchers reported at the American Psychiatric Association's annual meeting this week in New York.

A seriously cluttered living space is one of the main signs of hoarding disorder in adults. But teens who show some of the symptoms of hoarding usually haven't collected nearly as many things as adults, says Volen Ivanov, a psychologist at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden.

"This could be due to a limit in freedom," Ivanov tells Shots. Kids who still live under their parents' roofs aren't as free to buy or collect things in the same way as adults who live on their own. But it could also be that hoarding gets worse over time.

Losses in life like the death of a loved one can exacerbate hoarding, Ivanov says. "So maybe it takes a little bit of time before life takes its toll on these youngsters."

Compulsive hoarding is a debilitating psychiatric condition. While many people collect things, those with hoarding disorder usually accumulate huge quantities of things such as newspapers, household items and clothing. In extreme cases, the piles can result in dangerous or unhygienic living conditions. The disorder is difficult to treat, but working with a therapist helps many patients.

Ivanov and his colleagues looked at 8,500 Swedish adolescents born between 1994 and 1995. In a study published last year, he found that 2 percent of this adolescent population showed symptoms of hoarding. Other research has found that 2 to 5.5 percent of adults show the same symptoms.

To further understand teen hoarding, the researchers observed 21 young people who had trouble parting with possessions, regardless of their value — that's another key symptom of hoarding. But when the researchers looked at these teens' rooms, none of them showed the extreme levels of clutter that characterized adult hoarders' living spaces.

Either hoarding is a disorder that doesn't fully show up in people until adulthood, or we need to change the criteria we use to diagnose the disorder, Ivanov says.

Continuing to observe this group over time may clear things up, he says. "We know that at least in adults there is a clear genetic component, and there is also an environmental component," he says. But beyond that, "we don't know that much about this condition."

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