Causes of Anorexia Nervosa

Although obesity affects more Americans than the opposite problem, anorexia nervosa, anorexia is a growing problem.

Anorexia affects 2.5 million Americans and has a higher mortality rate than any other mental illness. Ten percent die. Only half to 60% of anorexics ever fully recover.

One percent of adolescent females between the ages of 10 and 20 are affected by anorexia nervosa. About 10% of anorexics are male.

People afflicted with anorexia seem to be getting younger and older. According to a recent Newsweek article, the youngest anorexic patients have declined from age 13 to 9. Also, as Baby Boomers grow older, more middle-aged women seem to be developing anorexia and bulimia.

Social Causes

Certain professions and sports emphasize a low body weight. Female athletes are significantly more likely to become anorexic than other girls. Sometimes coaches encourage weight loss and associate it with improved performance. Anorexics don't know when or how to stop losing weight.

Some cultures, especially American, emphasize the importance of being thin and associate it with attractiveness.

Overprotective families that emphasize overachievement or physical fitness often produce anorexic children.

Psychological and Emotional Causes

Certain personality traits are associated with anorexia which include perfectionism, approval-seeking, low self-esteem, irritability, withdrawal and obsessiveness.

Major life transitions, emotional upsets and sexual or physical abuse can trigger anorexia.

A feeling of powerlessness can make some use anorexia as a way to control something in their life

Biological Causes of Anorexia

In the past, anorexia was thought to be caused by extreme pressure to be thin from parents and the media. Only emotional and social causes were thought to cause it. People thought it only occured in girls who felt a great need for control of their own lives and bodies. While these may sometimes be contributing factors, new research suggests anorexia seems to be caused by chemical imbalances in the brain.

Studies at the University of Pittsburgh found that unusually high levels of serotonin in the brains of anorexics. It seems strange at first because normal levels of serotonin are associated with happiness and a sense of well-being. High levels of serotonin, however, may be linked to anxiety and obsessional thinking. These are typical traits of anorexics.

Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) causes anorexia in some cases strikes as many males as females, about 2% of the population. Those afflicted by excessive concerns about appearance, body shape, body size, weight, a perceived lack of muscles and facial blemishes.

BDD can lead to unnecessary plastic surgery, steroid abuse in men and suicide. BDD is generally very treatable.

As many as 20% of untreated people with serious eating disorders die. With treatment, only 2-3% die.

Even with treatment, about 20% of people with eating disorders only make a partial recovery. Partial recovery is considered remaining still very focused on food and weight, and only partially in friendships and romantic relationships. They sometimes hold jobs, but a lot of their wages goes to diet books, laxatives, exercise classes and binge food.

Effects of Anorexia

Physical Effects

Emotional and Behavioral Effects