Anorexia affects two out of every 100 teenage girls, although the disorder does occur less frequently in other age groups and occasionally in males.
Signs and symptoms of anorexia include dry skin, brittle hair and nails, and an intolerance of cold temperatures. The appearance of lanugo, or downy hair on the face and body is common. Chronic low blood pressure and a slowed heart rate are also typical. Cardiac, kidney, and electrolyte imbalances are common and are often the cause of death.
Of course, by far the most obvious sign of anorexia is weight loss. To be medically classified with the disorder, the diagnostic criteria are a loss in weight of 15% or more, although usually a loss of at least 25-30% has occurred before treatment is usually sought.
The most disturbing aspect of the disorder is the marked change in body image experienced by the sufferer, who genuinely cannot see the emaciated appearance of their own body, but rather perceives themselves to be fat. There is an intense fear of gaining weight, and sufferers exhibit pride in their ability to lose weight and monitor food intake. There may be a preoccupation with “good” and “bad” foods, an obsession with the cooking and preparation of food (but not actually eating) and often an encyclopedic knowledge of the calorific value of most foods.
To be clinically diagnosed with the disorder, the patient must satisfy 4 criteria:
1. Refusal to maintain an appropriate body mass for age and height. Body weight is at least 15% below average for age and height.
2. Intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, even though markedly underweight.
3. Disturbance in the way the body is perceived, obsessive thoughts linking weight to self-esteem, and denial of the consequences of extreme low body weight.
4. Absence of menstruation for at least three consecutive cycles.
The cause of anorexia remains unknown, but societal influences are heavily indicated. Sufferers are often perfectionists and high achievers. Alternatively, obsessive control of food intake may be a way of gaining power over a situation that the sufferer finds unable to control. Due to the absence of a clear-cut cause for the disorder, treatments vary. Hospitalization is the most commonly used intervention, where the patient may be tube fed, or subjected to a regime of rewards and punishments in return for food intake.
More recent pioneers in the area, such as the Canadian Peggy Claude-Pierre, have removed the focus from force feeding onto more positive methods such as addressing the negativity that drives the condition.
The greatest gift that a friend or family member can give to their loved one who suffers from this frightening condition is to firstly educate themselves about the condition, in order that unhelpful statements such as “why don’t you pull yourself together” are avoided. Understanding, patience, and unconditional love are the keys to unraveling the mystery that drives each individual’s desire to starve themselves. Specialized counseling and medical intervention are essential in the treatment of this condition as remission rarely occurs without some form of professional intervention.
Contact Beth McHugh for further information or assistance regarding this issue.