Each year millions of people in the United States are affected by serious and sometimes life-threatening eating disorders. The vast majority are adolescents and young adult women. Approximately one percent of adolescents girls develop anorexia nervosa, a dangerous condition in which they can literally starve themselves to death. Another two to three percent develop bulimia nervosa, a destructive pattern of excessive overeating followed by vomiting or other ” purging ” behaviors to control their weight. These eating disorders also occur in men and older women , but much less frequently.
The consequences of eating disorders can be severe. For example, one in ten anorexia nervosa leads to death from starvation, cardiac arrest, or suicide. Fortunately, increasing awareness of the dangers of eating disorders, sparked by medicall studies and extensive media coverage, has led many poeple to seek help. Nevertheless, some people with eating disorders refuse to admit that they have a problem and do not get treatment.
Family and friends can help recognize the problem and encourage the person to seek treatment. Anorexia nervosa is a disorder where people intentionally starve themselves. It usually starts around the time of puberty and involves extreme weight loss. Sometimes they must be hospitalized to prevent starvation because food and weight become obsessions. For some, the compulsiveness shows up in strange eating rituals, some even collect recipes and prepare gourmet feasts for family and friends. Loss of monthly menstrual periods is typical in women with this disorder and men with this disorder usually become impotent.
People with bulmia nervosa consume large amounts of food and then rid their bodies of the excess calories by vomiting, abusing laxatives or excersising obsessively. Some use a combination of all these forms of purging. Many individuals with bulimia ” binge and purge ” in secret and maintain normal or above normal body weight, they can often successfully hide their problem from others for years. As with anorexia, bulimia typically begins during adolescence. The condition occurs most often in women but is also found in men.
Many individuals with bulimia, do not seek help until they reach their thirties or forties. By then, their eating behavior is deeply ingrained and more difficult to change. Medical complications can frequently be a result of eating disorders. Individuals with eating disorders who use drugs to stimulate vomiting, may be in considerable danger, as this practice increases the risk of heart failure.
In patients with anorexia, starvation can damage vital organs such as the heart and brain. To protect itself, the body shifts into ” slow gear “: monthly menstrual periods stop, breathing, pulse and, blood pressure rates drop, and thyroid function slows. Nails and hair become brittle, the skin dries, yellows, and becomes covered with soft hair called lanugo. Excessive thirst and frequent urination may occur.
Dehydration contributes to constipation, and reduced body fat leads to lowered body temperature and inability to with stand cold. Mild anemia, swollen joints, reduced muscles mass, and light headedness also commonly occur in anorexia. If the disorder becomes severe, patients may lose calcium from their bones, making them brittle and prone to breakage. Scientists from the National Institute of Mental Health ( NIMH ), have also found that patients suffer from other psychiatric illnesses.
They may suffer from anxiety, personality or substance abuse disorders, and many are at a risk for suicide. Obsessive compulsive disorder, an illness characterized by repetitive thoughts and behaviors, can also accompany anorexia.