Consequences of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are serious medical conditions that can affect all organs in the body and Anorexia is the 3rd most common chronic illness among adolescents (Public Health Service’s Office in Women’s Health, 2000). Both anorexia and bulimia can have serious and irreversible medical complications.

A young woman with anorexia is 12 times more likely to die than other women her age without anorexia (HEDC). Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate than any other mental illness, including all drug/alcohol disorders and depression.

Physical/Medical Consequences

– Fertility problems later in life
– Sterility
– Miscarriage risk
– Low Birth Weight
The average birth weight of a baby born to an active anorexic is 5.7 pounds. The average birth weight of a baby born to an active purging anorexic is 4.9 pounds. In a long term Danish follow-up study of women with anorexia, perinatal mortality was nearly six times greater and incidence of low-birth-weight babies two times greater than expected rates (Renfrew).
– Ovarian failure – unable to conceive later in life
– Heart irregularities (mitral valve prolapse), heart attacks, sudden death
– Liver damage – liver and multiple organ failure
– Intestinal problems caused by the use of laxatives
– Seizures
– Anemia
– Addiction-to diet pills, laxatives, drugs (often cocaine or methamphetamine) and/or alcohol abuse
– Esophageal cancer
– Ruptured esophagi
– Change in voice/irreversible hoarseness
– Dental cavities
– Erosion of the gums or receding gums
– Low blood pressure
– Osteoporosis
– Lesions in the esophagus

An estimated 480,000 people die every year from complications related to eating disorders (Renfrew). However we know that these statistics are underreported because eating disorder and related deaths are not tracked by any US government agency, where as other mental and medical illnesses are.

Emotional/Mental Consequences

Dual diagnosis- often one with an eating disorder has other diagnosable disorders. Some include: depression, anxiety, panic disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, and others.

Personality disorders are often seen as well; some examples are Bi-polar disorder, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, and borderline personality disorder to name a few.

– Other co-existing (Dual-diagnosis) disorders include:
– Depression/Dysthymia
– High risk of Suicide
– Dependant personality disorder
– Self-Harm/Cutting
– Attachment disorders
– Obsessive compulsive disorder
– Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Other Immediate and Long-Term Consequences

– Risk for illness- due to a compromised immune system
– Voice problems – irreversible
– Liver/kidney failure
– Muscle cramps – due to low potassium and sodium
– Dental consequences (long-term effects of enamel)
– Stomach/digestion problems – heart-burn, slowed digestion
– Chronic irregular bowel movements and constipation – may be irreversible
– Ulcers and pancreatitis
– Chest pain and abnormal heart rate – potassium loss, impaired electrolyte function
– Serious long-term heart problems that may lead to heart failure or sudden death

Childhood and adolescent years are lost. For every year an individual engages in their eating disorder they lose that year of personal/psycho-social development. For instance if a girl starts her diet that results in the diagnosis of anorexia at age 13, her mental development is slowed until she is free of her eating disorder. The disorder allows her to numb out and disengage from life, therefore keeping her from fully developing mentally. As a result she is unable to learn important life skills that most others do at a similar age.

Individuals also suffer the loss of friendships and other relationships because of their inability to fully be themselves. They remain emotionally distant from others and often chose to isolate themselves from other family members and friends. As the isolation continues, the depression worsens.

Financial Considerations

Treatment alone is extremely expensive, even if insurance is involved. Many individuals with eating disorders spend their money on food for their binges. This may be hundreds of dollars per week .

Another financial concern is the use of illegal drugs to shut down any hunger or obsessions they may have. Cocaine and methamphetamine are well known for their ability to shut down hunger signals and speed up metabolism. Many eating disordered individuals use both these drugs and others. The use of these drugs bring an even bigger concern for safety. Both drugs carry with them a large risk for overdose which leads to heart attacks, emergency room trips, or jail at the very least.

Eating disordered individuals may require several inpatient hospital treatment programs in their life time. It is not uncommon to see individuals in at least three different treatment centers throughout their battle with the eating disorder. Many of these treatment facilities are $50,000.00 each visit. Therefore it is fairly common to see parents finance the money needed for treatment and re-finance their homes just to provide a chance of recovery with a new treatment facility.

Career Goal Interruptions

Eating disorders get in the way of every aspect of one’s life, including school, social, and employment arenas. The eating disorder controls one’s life and other interests take a back seat to the demanding illness. Eating disorders require much emotional energy, mental focus and obsession. Much of the day is spent agonizing and obsessing about their disorder that anything else may seem impossible to accomplish. These individuals feel overwhelmed, anxious, and scared. These feelings lead right back to the disordered patterns, sometimes spending 6 to 8 hours every day engaging in their eating disorder behavior alone.