A person with anorexia nervosa does not eat enough food to maintain a reasonable body weight. Anorexia affects 0.6% of Americans, only one-third of whom are receiving treatment. Although it can occur earlier or later, anorexia typically develops during puberty and the late teenage years, with an average age of onset of about 19 years.
People with anorexia have an intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat. Their body image is distorted so that, even when emaciated, they think they are fat. People with anorexia may engage in compulsive behaviors or rituals that help them keep from eating. They also commonly use vigorous and prolonged physical activity to reduce body weight. Although they may express a great interest in food, their diet becomes more and more extreme.
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People with anorexia are typically introverted, emotionally reserved, and socially insecure. Their entire sense of self-esteem may be tied up in their evaluation of their body shape and weight.
Anorexia nervosa has been linked to a variety of medical complications, including disorders of the cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and endocrine systems. Because of extreme weight loss, females with anorexia often stop menstruating. When body fat is virtually gone and muscles are severely wasted, the body turns to its organs in a desperate search for protein. Death can occur from heart failure caused by electrolyte imbalances. About one in ten women with anorexia dies of starvation, cardiac arrest, or other medical complications one of the highest death rates for any psychiatric disorder. Depression is also a serious risk, and about half the fatalities relating to anorexia are suicides.
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