How Dangerous Are The Long Term Effects of Anorexia?
Contributed Article by Debra Cooper, BS, Staff of Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center.
The Long-Term Impact of Anorexia
You hear the word anorexia, you think weight loss. If only the consequence of this illness was that limited. Although anorexia is a psychological disease, it behaves more like a physical disease, namely cancer. A cancer cell may begin its life in the breast, brain or bone; but given enough time, it will metastasize throughout the body with a singular goal of destroying all healthy tissue it encounters.
Similarly, anorexia may start with a simple diet and associated weight loss. But, once this disease gets a firm grip on its subject, it too metastasizes – and it doesn’t stop at merely ravaging a woman’s body. Instead, it strives to destroy her mind, spirit, relationships, future, and ultimately, her life. Sadly, it is often successful on every front.
Anorexia kills people. In fact, this disease enjoys the highest fatality rate of any psychiatric disorder. In the case of a celebrity death, the media provides coverage. Perhaps the first recognized case was that of Karen Carpenter in the early 80s. An anorexic who relied on ipecac for vomiting, she died of heart failure. Years later, she was followed by Christina Renee Henrich, a world-class gymnast who died in 1994. Ana Carolina Reston Macan, a famous Brazilian model, died in 2006, and Isabelle Caro, a French actress and model, succumbed to the disease in 2010. Interestingly and ironically, this second model had displayed her shockingly skinny body in an advertising campaign designed to raise awareness of anorexia.
So, when a celebrity dies, it makes headlines. But what about the thousands of women and girls and men who will die this year from the same disease? Their stories, though equally important, will probably go unreported.
Certainly, the majority of those who have anorexia will not die. But make no mistake, the long-term consequences of this disease can be severe.
Initially, the health consequences related to anorexia are noticeable: emaciated appearance, dry skin and hair, bluish fingertips, etc. Unfortunately, the long-term and far more severe medical issues cannot be seen on the surface.
The brain actually shrinks due to lack of nutrition with a commensurate lowering of IQ. The skeletal system is damaged, especially if the anorexia occurs in adolescents before the bones are fully developed. Nearly 90% of women with anorexia experience osteopenia (loss of bone calcium) and 40% have osteoporosis (more advanced loss of bone density). This bone loss is usually permanent.(1)
Because the entire hormonal system is compromised by starvation, infertility often results and can be permanent. Perhaps the most endangered organ in the body is the heart. In fact, the most common cause of death in anorexics is heart disease. Much of this is related to muscle deterioration. As the body strives to maintain life, it starts consuming its own muscle; in effect, it starts eating itself. The heart is not immune.
Impact on Relationships
Anorexia is in the destruction business. This is not confined to the individual with the disease. No matter what the connection is — parents with an ill daughter; a husband with an anorexic wife — the relationship will be profoundly impacted, if not destroyed altogether. This is because such a disease is unfathomable to anyone who does not have it.
Whereas a woman may have some understanding as to why she embraces certain behaviors, those in a relationship with her simply see self-destruction. With each additional pound lost, she inevitably changes. She becomes more obsessed with food and weight, frequently loses interest in normal life and activities, and often isolates.
Basically, she transforms into a completely different person. How can this not negatively impact relationships with friends and family? Friendships, even marriages, often end due to frustration or fear. Although parents may remain connected and involved, even that relationship is dramatically affected as they watch their daughter slip away into the disease.
Anorexia is not a disease of any one group or belief system. Especially, it is not relegated to those who believe in God, or not. In fact, profoundly committed Christian women sometimes begin walking the anorexic path as an extension of perfectionism. They possess a strong desire to appear perfect to the church community – and according to our culture … that means thin. They forget that the Lord made every one of His children to be distinctive and unique. God doesn’t make cookie-cutter children. Additionally, He has a plan for every one of our lives; these plans undoubtedly do not include premature destruction.
Regardless of original intention behind weight loss, once a woman is in the grip of full-fledged anorexia, her relationship with God will likely be damaged. He will not leave her, but she might drift from Him. Perhaps she will disconnect from Him due to guilt or shame regarding her actions, or simply because she is too exhausted to focus on prayer or worship. Anorexia is a demanding, selfish disorder. It wants a woman’s full attention. Often, there is no room for a continuing relationship with a loving and nurturing God.
Change Is Possible
When a woman gets cancer, she immediately seeks treatment, knowing the sooner the medical intervention, the greater the possibility for a full recovery. Anorexia should be no different. Excellent, life-changing treatment is available. If you, or someone you know, struggles with anorexia, please get help immediately.
Last Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on March 29, 2013
Page last updated: March 29, 2013
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com, Eating Disorder Resource
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