Eating Disorders: A Silent Killer
Eating disorders affect an estimated 30 million people across the US at any given time, and many believe the number could be substantially higher as a large amount of cases go unreported. This is even more troubling as eating disorders have the highest mortality rates of any mental illness due to related medical conditions and are associated with numerous other mental health issues such as depression.
Current estimates suggest only 1 in 10 people who experience symptoms of eating disorders receive treatment, and only 35% of those who seek treatment receive it at a specialized facility.
There are numerous continuing reasons so many cases of eating disorders go untreated. There are social factors such as the stigma of openly recognizing you are living with an eating disorder as well as the consistent downplaying of the severity of these disorders.
Most media on the conditions focus the attention on how these disorders form but rarely are the high mortality rates and other health risks included in the discussion. Additionally, there are web sites and social media pages which promote behaviors and physical size issue which encourage and support the negative aspects of eating disorders.
Eating disorders are often also often perceived to be something other than a mental health issue. In society, eating disorders are often treated as a choice or lifestyle decision that can be corrected with nothing more than discipline. This fuels the stigma surrounding eating disorders, but it also entirely dismisses the compulsive nature of these conditions.
This type of thinking belittles eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia as being nothing more than a desire to be thin, and binge eating as a lack of self-control. But, these assumptions are entirely off-base. Eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia are typically accompanied by body dysmorphia, a condition where an individual falsely perceives their own body or compulsively focuses on perceived flaws.
Another factor keeping those with eating disorders out of treatment is the widespread belief that these conditions are “women’s issues”. Statistics regularly imply that women experience eating disorders at significantly higher rates, but there is plenty of data to suggest those numbers may be underestimating the prevalence of eating disorders within men. The highest estimates say men make up one-third of all eating disorder cases, but there are likely many more struggling in silence.
These factors play a huge role and they are mirrored in the access available to clinical treatment of these conditions. It is common for people experiencing eating disorders to be unaware that treatment is available, and many mental health treatment centers do not provide specialized treatment of these conditions. Practically none offer treatment for individuals who have been disabled due to their eating disorders and related psychological disorders who require assistance with receiving treatment through programs such as Medicare.
In fact, Brookhaven is the only hospital that accepts Medicare for eating disorders in the region and one of the few across the country. Equally important, Brookhaven offers specialized treatment for eating disorders while also being able to care for any other co-existing conditions.
Comprehensive treatment is important for eating disorders as they rarely exist in isolation. Nearly half of those diagnosed with an eating disorder meet the criteria for depression, while anxiety, obsessive compulsive, and substance abuse disorders are also highly prevalent. It is unclear whether a predisposition to these other mental illnesses contribute to the development of eating disorder or whether eating disorders lead to these conditions, but what is clear is that they often reinforce each other and create a dangerous cycle.
Current brain research is also recognizing that individuals with eating disorders have specific changes in their brains.
While all of these conditions, including eating disorders, can have an incredible impact on a person’s life on their own, eating disorders are also compounded by several physical health problems that can form from long-term improper nutrition.
Eating disorders based around the loss of weight such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa deny the body essential nutrients which gradually cause severe health issues.
For example, anorexia is known to cause abnormally slow heart rate and blood pressure, which lead to a high risk for heart failure. In addition, lack of nutrients cause reduction of bone density which results in brittle and easy broken bones. Other health issues associated with anorexia include muscle loss and weakness, severe dehydration which may cause kidney failure, and fainting or fatigue, all of which conspire to give anorexia the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder.
Some individuals are also compulsive exercisers who further deprive their bodies of calories through frequent and aggressive physical activity.
Of course, Bulimia is also highly dangerous, as the binge-and-purge cycle wreak havoc on the digestive system, which cause many of the same issues of anorexia as well as a few unique problems. These include irregular heartbeat and possible heart failure, potential for gastric rupture, tooth decay, and peptic ulcers or pancreatitis.
These aren’t the only dangerous eating disorders obviously. Binge eating also has numerous health issues linked to the condition such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, heart disease resulting from elevated triglyceride levels, type II diabetes, and gallbladder disease.
In short, eating disorders are simultaneously one of the most dangerous but underestimated mental health issues a person can encounter, and the low rates of treatment can be directly linked to the high mortality rates. Without increased access to treatment and improved education, this category of disorders will continue to take lives.
Eating disorders are not restricted just to the young. People can develop eating disorders later in life or previously controlled eating disorders can worsen with stressful or traumatic life events. As people age with an eating disorder, there may be few options for treatment available to them. The eating disorders program at Brookhaven offers help to people of all ages.
If you or someone you know shows signs of living with an eating disorder, please contact a Brookhaven eating disorder case manager to see how we can help. You can call here: