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Anorexia Nervosa - Topic Overview

Anorexia nervosa (say "an-uh-RECK-see-uh nur-VOH-suh") is a type of eating disorder. People who have anorexia have an intense fear of gaining weight. They severely limit the amount of food they eat and can become dangerously thin.

Anorexia affects both the body and the mind. It may start as dieting, but it gets out of control. You think about food, dieting, and weight all the time. You have a distorted body image. Other people say you are too thin, but when you look in the mirror, you see your body as overweight.

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Anorexia: The Body Neglected

Anorexia nervosa takes an enormous toll on the body. But that's not all. It has the highest death rate of any mental illness. Between 5% and 20% of people who develop the disease eventually die from it.

What happens exactly? Here's a look at what anorexia does to the human body.

The first victim of anorexia is often the bones. The disease usually develops in adolescence -- right at the time when young people are supposed to be putting down the critical bone mass that will sustain them through adulthood.

But the most life-threatening damage is usually the havoc wreaked on the heart. As the body loses muscle mass, it loses heart muscle at a preferential rate -- so the heart gets smaller and weaker. "It gets worse at increasing your circulation in response to exercise, and your pulse and your blood pressure get lower," says Mickley. "The cardiac tolls are acute and significant, and set in quickly." Heart damage, which ultimately killed singer Karen Carpenter, is the most common reason for hospitalization in most people with anorexia.

Read more about complications of anorexia

Anorexia usually starts in the teen years. It's much more common in females than males. Early treatment can be effective. The earlier it is treated, the better the chances someone can recover from anorexia. Untreated anorexia can lead to starvation and serious health problems, such as bone thinning (osteoporosis), kidney damage, and heart problems. Some people die from these problems.

If you or someone you know has anorexia, get help right away. The longer this problem goes on, the harder it is to overcome. Over time and with treatment, a person with anorexia can feel better and stay at a healthy weight.

Eating disorders are complex, and experts don't really know what causes them. But they may be due to a mix of genetics, family behaviors, social factors, and personality traits. You may be more likely to have anorexia if:

  • Other people in your family have an eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia nervosa.
  • You have a job or do a sport that stresses body size, such as ballet, modeling, or gymnastics.
  • You are the type of person who tries to be perfect all the time, never feels good enough, or worries a lot.
  • You are dealing with stressful life events, such as divorce, moving to a new town or school, or losing a loved one.

People who have anorexia often strongly deny that they have a problem. They don't see or believe that they do. It's usually up to their loved ones to get help for them. If you are worried about someone, you can look for certain signs.

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