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Understanding the Effects of Anorexia Nervosa on Teenagers

written by: Rene Wolf • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 10/8/2010

Teenagers with anorexia nervosa are affected both physically and psychologically by the disorder. This article looks at some of the most serious side effects of anorexia nervosa among teenagers.

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    Anorexia nervosa among teenagers is an extremely serious illness. The physical and psychological effects can be severe, and in some cases result in death. An anorexic teenager is obsessed with being thin, and regardless of how thin they are, continue to exercise and starve themselves because they see themselves as overweight.

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    Physical Problems

    There is often visible physical damage that occurs when a teenager is anorexic, including:

    • Thinning hair
    • Fatigue
    • Cold and/or swollen hands and feet
    • Fine, downy hair that covers the body
    • Excessive weight loss
    • Dry skin

    Teenagers who starve themselves are often doing irrevocable damage that they may, or may not be aware of. When the body goes without the nutrition it needs to function properly, there is a chance of permanent damage.

    The visible symptoms such as frail bodies, thinning hair and fatigue, are often mistaken as the worst that the disorder can do. Although this physical damage is problematic, it is the damage done to the body's interior that can lead to severe health problems, and for some, death.

    Damage done to the organs, hormones and bones are often non-repairable or may take several years to slightly recover.

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    Heart Disease

    According to the University of Maryland’s Medical Center, “heart disease is the most common medical cause of death in people with severe anorexia." A teenager with anorexia can suffer from heart problems including dangerous heart rhythms.

    The primary damage to the heart is due to abnormal balance of minerals such as potassium, magnesium, phosphate and calcium. These minerals are normally dissolved in body fluids, however, starvation and dehydration may reduce fluid and mineral levels. This can lead to a condition known as electrolyte imbalance.

    Calcium and potassium are electrolytes critical for the functioning and maintenance of electric currents needed for a normal heartbeat. When the electrolytes are unbalanced this can pose a serious health risk.

    When a teenager who is anorexic uses ipecac syrup, a drug often used to promote vomiting, the risk of heart problems increases. More information regarding death of a young adult as a result of anorexia and ipecac can be found by reading Karen Carpenter's Battle With Anorexia.

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    Neurological Problems

    Teenagers with severe anorexia may possibly have nerve damage that affects various parts of the body, including the brain. Nerve related conditions include disorganized thinking, seizures, and numbness in the feet and/or hands. Some of these problems can be reversed when the person begins to gain their weight back, however, there may also be irreversible damage.

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    Bones and Muscles

    Calcium deficiency and loss of protein as a result of anorexia can lead to muscle weakness, and increase the risk of fractures as well as osteoporosis. Weight gain does not completely restore the damage done to bones, and the longer a person is anorexic the greater the risk of bone loss being permanent.

    • A major contributor to bone loss in anorexic teenage girls is the decrease in estrogen and calcium levels.
    • Boys with anorexia have a decrease in their testosterone levels, which also affects their bone density. Anorexic boys who regain lost weight will also regain a slight amount of their growth. However, they will not regain their full growth potential.

    Another hormonal problem in anorexic teenage girls as a result of the reduction in estrogen is irregular menstruation. If the anorexia progresses periods may stop, bones will become brittle and blood pressure will drop. Over an extended amount of time, a continued disruption to the hormones may result in infertility.

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    Psychological Effects of Anorexia Nervosa Among Teenagers

    The psychological problems that are the most common among teenage anorexics include:

    • Thrive for perfectionism
    • Inability to remember recent information
    • Preoccupied with food
    • Self perception is distorted
    • Refusal to acknowledge the seriousness of the disorder
    • Signs and symptoms of obsessive compulsive behavior
    • Terrified of possible ridicule, criticism or humiliation
    • Sensitive to failure
    • Emotionally inhibited
    • Low self esteem
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    Psychological Effects and Suicide

    Teenagers with anorexia are at high risk of depression and anxiety. An adolescent with an eating disorder such as anorexia often feels that other people have the same distorted view of their body as they do.

    The misconceptions of how others view them as well as the dissatisfaction with their own body, often leads anorexics to seek isolation. This leads to a deeper depression. Drug and alcohol abuse are also common among depressed anorexic teenagers and according to the University of Maryland’s Medical Center, suicide is the cause of 50% of the deaths that occur among anorexic teenagers.

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    References

    University of Maryland, Medical Center: Eating disorders, Complications of Anorexia http://www.umm.edu/patiented/articles/how_serious_anorexia_nervosa_000049_5.htm

    Healthy Place: The Physical effects Of Eating Disorders http://www.healthyplace.com/eating-disorders/main/the-physical-effects-of-eating-disorders/menu-id-58/

    University of Maryland Medical Center: Anorexia nervosa http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/anorexia-nervosa-000012.htm

    Parenting and Child Health: Eating Disorders http://www.cyh.sa.gov.au/HealthTopics/HealthTopicDetails.aspx?p=114&np=304&id=1

    Henry Ford Health System: In depth Patient Reports, Eating Disorders http://www.henryfordhealth.org/155876.cfm