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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.

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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.

Medical Implications

The highly specialized team at Timberline Knolls notes 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.

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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 October 17, 2016

Page last updated: October 17, 2016
Published on, Eating Disorder Resource

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathryn November 9, 2014 at 8:08 pm

Thank you for this wonderful article. It really struck me. You share so effectively the dangers of anorexia. It is eye opening. And I love the part where you share about the Lord…This is so encouraging and brings hope. We are never alone and it is good to be reminded of His love.
Thank you for sharing.

Crystal Karges MS, RDN, IBCLC November 10, 2014 at 12:19 pm

Thank you for your kind feedback Kathryn! Thank you for being a part of this community and friend of Eating Disorder Hope.

pftinfocenter April 8, 2015 at 3:11 am

Hi there, after reading this amazing piece of writing i am as well glad to share my familiarity here with friends.

jim May 30, 2015 at 10:23 pm

This website is very informative and helpful.. I am a 41 yr old male who has been dealing with anorexia for about 5.5 years now.. It has destroyed all of my relationships with family and friends including my spouse.. It has even began to affect my job.. This disorder is a real bitch to deal with.. I am mad at myself for succumbing to it… I thought when it started I could control it but it has taken control of everything and my life if that’s what u call it is ripping apart at the seams…. I wouldn’t wish this disorder on my worst enemy I wish I never had the diagnosis of 370.1 or have to look into the mirror and pick out the problem areas I still have to work on.. I wish I saw the thin person everybody else sees instead of the overweight distorted figure I see in the mirror looking back at me.. I just wanted to give you an insight of the disorder how everybody else feels it is different from person to person but that is some of the hell I go through on a daily basis.. I’m not looking for sympathy or pity.. I just want people to realize how awful this disorder really is… Thank you for reading.

Debbie January 16, 2016 at 5:29 am

After 40 years of witnessing my sister with this dreaded disease I will read an article now and then. I’ll read because some days I still hold a glimpse of hope. This article was a good read back to reality of the destruction done to my sister’s body. The destruction done to my family. The analogy of cancer was very telling for me. Telling because, many have lost loved ones to cancer.. My thought, my family with cancer had a better quality to their life then my sister has ever had. Illness of mind and body a double edged sword.

Rosina February 12, 2016 at 2:16 am

Unfortunately, unlike patients with cancer, patients with anorexia do not seek treatment, especially at the beginning of the disorder. I know that by myself. At the time, I’d do anything but allow someone to disturb my perfect new life-style and dieting. It was my priority.
After eight years of struggling, now I do want to recover, but I still cannot permit myself to gain weight. I just want to wake up and be okay, without any trace of the disease.
Unfortunately, I need to face the longterm consequences of my decision.
I think the most dangerous characteristic of anorexia is, that we don’t assume it as a disease.
Unlike cancer, we see it as a solution. For me, particularly, I still see it as the only way to cope with life, which contradictorily is the reason of my failures.

While cancer depends on medications, chemotherapy
healing from anorexia depends on ourselves; on our daily routine; our daily effort to change the longterm established destructive pathological habits to a new ones – constructive and healing.
I encourage every patient to open their eyes and recognize the truth about anorexia.
It is not just a lifestyle, it is not a solution.
It is a disease, and it is as dangerous as cancer.
But unlikely cancer, it depends on you! Unlikely cancer, there is a 100% hope for curing, when chances of cancer are often 50%.

Thank you for your article!
I wish everyone a successful recovery and a bright new life, full of joy and affection.

Hamish February 18, 2016 at 2:17 am

Thanks for the article. I am much like Debbie, except my sister has ‘only’ been suffering for 10 years. There are long gaps between seeing each other as I live overseas and each time I do see her, I struggle to cope with the hopelessness I feel. I truly believe anorexia is the worst illness ever – mental and physical, relying on a patient who doesn’t want help and usually underfunded by health services.

phephile linda moyo May 5, 2016 at 10:19 pm

Thank you so much this is eye opening..

Teresa Connolly December 29, 2016 at 9:29 am

This very eye opening …thankyou for this .

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