Chronic and Long Term Effects of Eating Disorders in Adulthood

Eating Disorders in Adulthood have long-term effects on our bodies and minds. Even today, more than a decade after weight restoration and recovery from anorexia, I have severely poor circulation to my hands and feet (almost lost some toes on a hike in the Grand Canyon), as well as an intense fear of being cold (I was freezing, like to the bone, for at least five years straight).

I couldn’t get away without any side effects after abusing my body for so long. Most people can’t. Unfortunately, we don’t accept this in the midst of an eating disorder, which tells us we need it. We can’t live without it. In reality, we can’t live (well) with it.

Like most things in life, the more we do something, the greater effect it has on us. This is great when it comes to things like yoga, volunteering, meditation, etc. Not so great when it comes to eating disorders. The longer we continue to starve, binge, purge, over-exercise, etc., the more our body suffers.

Disease Without Bias

Eating disorders are considered by most to be a disease only of young women, and it’s true adolescent and young-adult females account for the majority of people with the illness.

However, girls and boys with eating disorders grow up, and as they do, only half of them report they’ve recovered from the illness, according to research from the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Related Disorders (ANAD).

The other half carry their eating disorder, shadowed by shame, into adulthood. Adults suffering from eating disorders fall into three categories: [1]

  1. They’ve had it for decades, the most common scenario.
  2. They recovered, and for various reasons, the eating disorder resurfaced.
  3. They just developed the eating disorder later in life.

The first group is most likely to experience long-term effects from an eating disorder because: first, they’ve practiced eating-disordered behavior for a long period of time; and second, their bodies are older and less resilient to an eating disorder’s danger.

Our Bones

Bone loss is common in women with eating disorders and occurs when a woman’s period stops because of low body weight. Known as amenorrhea, the condition creates low estrogen levels which contribute to significant losses in bone density, according to the National Institutes of Health Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases National Resource Center.

Also, malnourished women produce excessive amounts of the adrenal hormone cortisol, which is known to trigger bone loss, the NIH center reports. Men with an eating disorder can also lose bone density due to low weight, for restriction, and testosterone deficiency.

Low bone loss, or osteopenia, is common in people with eating disorders and starts in early stages of the disease. This problem can lead to more stress fractures and, possibly, osteoporosis.

Bone loss is a greater problem in older adults, especially women, whose bones are already thinning with age and menopause, which reduces estrogen levels.

Our Hearts

Food restriction and purging dehydrate the body, throwing off electrolyte levels, which leads to decreased muscle function. The heart is a muscle, and its ability to function properly depends on electrolyte balance.

If it’s not functioning well for an extended period of time, the result can be heart disease, heart arrhythmia (irregular heartbeats), cardiomyopathy (weakening heart), muscle weakness that can border on paralysis, and tetany (involuntary muscle contractions). All of these side effects can be fatal, especially when the conditions are prolonged and chronic.

Our Reproduction

Eating disorders also affect a female’s ability to become and remain pregnant. If women with a history of anorexia do get pregnant, they have higher rates of miscarriage and lower infant birth. [2] Now, this doesn’t directly affect an older adult, but the woman was unable to conceive in her reproductive years, may be living without the children she’d wanted.

Our Brains

During prolonged malnourishment, the body’s organs begin to shut down due to lack of nutrients and calorie energy. The brain is an organ, and when it doesn’t get enough nutrition, it loses brain matter. The white matter returns when weight and nutrition are restored, but the grey brain matter does not.

These deficits may not be clinically evident initially, but may be associated with long-term effects on cognitive functioning and the ability to concentrate (Sidiropoulos, 2007). The neurological consequences may worsen the longer someone struggles with an eating disorder; and in many people, cognitive dysfunction begins in older age.

Leigh BellAbout the Author: Leigh Bell holds a Bachelor of Arts in English with minors in Creative Writing and French from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. She is a published author, a journalist with 15 years of experience, and a recipient of the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism. Leigh is recovered from a near-fatal, decade-long battle with anorexia and the mother of three young, rambunctious children.


[1]: Schaeffer, J. (n.d.). Elder Eating Disorders: Surprising New Challenge. Retrieved December 15, 2015.
[2]: Sidiropoulos, M. (2007). Anorexia nervosa: The physiological consequences of starvation and the need for primary prevention efforts. McGill Journal of Medicine, 10(1): 20-25.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on January 27, 2016
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