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 a
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
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
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.
Anorexia usually starts in the teen years. It's much more common in females than males. Early
treatment can be very effective. But if not treated early, anorexia can become
a lifelong problem. 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. 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 family history, 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
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.
Weigh much less than is healthy or
Are very afraid of gaining weight.
stay at a normal weight.
Think they are overweight even when they
are very thin.
Their lives become focused on controlling their weight.
Vomit or use laxatives or water pills
(diuretics) to avoid weight gain.
If your doctor thinks
that you may have an eating disorder, he or she will compare your weight with
the expected weight for someone of your height and age. He or she will also
check your heart, lungs, blood pressure, skin, and hair to look for problems
caused by not eating enough. You may also have blood tests or X-rays.
Your doctor may ask questions about how you feel. It is common for a
treatable mental health problem such as depression or anxiety to play a part in
an eating disorder.