Anorexia nervosa is an extremely dangerous eating disorder in which a person intentionally deprives herself or himself of food and can literally starve to death in an attempt to be what they consider “thin.” The disorder involves extreme weight loss–at least 15% below the individual’s “ideal” weight–and a refusal to maintain body weight that is even minimally normal for their age and height and body frame.
The self-esteem of individuals with this disorder is hyper-dependent on their body shape and weight. Even if they become extremely emaciated, an anorexic person’s distorted body image convinces them they are “fat.” Weight loss for them is viewed as an impressive self-achievement and an indication of extraordinary self-discipline, whereas weight gain is perceived as an unacceptable failure of self-control.
The disorder usually begins around the time of puberty and the onset is often associated with a stressful life event such as leaving home for college, or their parents divorcing. While more than 90% of the cases affect young women,the numbers of recognized cases of males with anorexia nervosa is increasing. Males can be at particular high risk for developing life-threatening medical problems as a direct result of the disorder, probably because they are too often diagnosed later than females.
In their concerted efforts to continually reduce their weight, anorexics reduce their food and calorie intake through such rigid strategies as excluding what they perceive to be high fat or high calorie foods; limiting their food intake to just a few specific low calorie foods; bingeing and purging; purging after even the smallest meals; refusing to eat in public, and/or going to great lengths to avoid eating with even close friends or family. Anorexics become obsessed with food–hoarding it, going to extra efforts to fix meals for others, carrying around stashes of candy–yet they will not allow themselves to eat any of it.
The Health Risks Are Extremely Serious
Although some individuals with this disorder will acknowledge that they’re thin, they typically deny the serious implications of their malnourished state. Cardiac disease is the most common medical cause of death in people with severe anorexia; the heart can develop dangerously slow rhythms, known as bradycardia, or, in many cases, the heart muscles literally starve, losing size. Some individuals suffer nerve damage and experience seizures, disordered thinking, and/or chronic nerve problems in their hands and feet.
Brain scans indicate that structural changes and abnormal activity occur in parts of the brain during anorexic states–while some of these changes can return to normal if weight is gained, there is evidence that some damage may be permanent.
Individuals with anorexia nervosa can become victim to major depression which then sets in play a dangerous cycle of emotional and physical disturbances: prolonged hunger leads to depression, which then seriously erodes self-esteem and self-confidence, which in turn increases the need for hyper-vigilance over controlling their weight and an even firmer resolve to not eat.
Some studies estimatee that suicide is the cause of as many as half the deaths in anorexia nervosa. At this time, anorexia nervosa is not an illness that can be completely cured, however, if it’s caught early and treated, many people do recover.