The Starving Brain
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Why not me? Why not Susan? Why Jeannie?
We all grew up with cultural messages suggesting thinness equals beauty and dieting is good for you. As a skinny eighth grader, I joined my friends in throwing away the school lunch every day and eating an 8-oz. container of yogurt instead.When she was a freshman, my friend Susan joined her college sorority sisters in eating meals and then going en-masse to the bathroom to throw them up. Neither of us emerged with an eating disorder.
Jeannie was a high school classmate of mine with a pretty face, an average build and a sweet personality. Seeing her on the bus the summer after my first year in college, I recognized only her sunken face. Her body was skeletal, emaciated; I’d never seen anything like it except in photos of Holocaust victims or Biafra refugees. I couldn’t help blurting out, “What happened?”
“I’ve been sick,” she said quietly. Later I found out she had anorexia.
Anorexia nervosa is a mental illness characterized by intense fear of gaining weight or being fat, severe restriction of calories often leading to refusal to eat, extreme weight loss and distorted body image. It is most commonly diagnosed in adolescence, but can arise at any life stage.
About 10 million females and 1 million males in the United States currently battle anorexia, according to the Seattle-based National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) and Harvard Medical School, and between 5 and 20 percent of people who suffer from anorexia will die from it, most commonly from heart failure or suicide. This represents the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric disorders.
At present, depending on who you ask, recovery rates range from 25 to 70 percent.
Fortunately, over the past 10 years the understanding of the causes of anorexia and other eating disorders has undergone a sea change, and this is leading to improved forms of treatments and hopefully better odds for recovery.