Anorexia dramatically shortens lifespan

Are you scared yet? A new study showed that anorexia can shorten your lifespan by 25 years.

Researchers in British Columbia reported that:

"Their number-crunching revealed, for instance, that a woman who develops the disorder at age 15 will live on average to age 56 - 25 years less than the average Canadian female.

"Anorexia nervosa is basically not recognized as a serious disease by society and government, in my opinion, certainly not compared to heart disease and cancer," said Dr. Laird Birmingham, the University of British Columbia psychiatry professor who led the research.

"Most people have a picture of supermodels who lose too much weight because of dieting and think ‘How pathetic is that?' "

The findings might also counter a stigma that has turned the disease into a "modern-day leprosy," he said."

However, Birmingham also noted that those who recovered from the disorder--especially after a short duration of illness--might very well not suffer from a shortened lifespan.

While I think these dramatic statistics are crucial to getting more research funding for anorexia and other eating disorders, I'm not sure of the effect on sufferers.

Of course, when you're in the thick of it, you never think this (osteoporosis, kidney failure, heart problems) will happen to YOU. Even more, "shortened lifespan" is awfully abstract. When you're starving but so afraid of food you can't eat, I might think this knowledge would only make the anxiety worse. I knew, instinctively, that what I was doing wasn't normal or good or healthy. I wanted it to be, and so I convinced myself that it was.

But I felt a necrosis inside of me. I knew I was slowly dying. I probably very well would have responded to the knowledge that if I'm going to die early, I may as well die thin. Ultimately, I was (still am, I suppose) more afraid of living with anorexia than dying from it.

I'm not saying this research should be done because of the twisted psyche of those in the throes of anorexia. But I am wondering whether it will propel sufferers to recovery. It would be nice. I don't think anyone would deny that. Would it be enough?

Mostly, what I think it underscores is the importance of early intervention and early treatment. We need to stop thinking of an eating disorder as a choice and food as a choice. It's not. This is still a life or death matter. Waiting for a sufferer to fear a shortened lifespan may come too late.

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Anonymous said...

I think this is one of those things that doesn't make a meaningful difference unless and until it happens to you. Then, you see people propelled to action, avowed to change; to honor their bodies; embrace at least the idea of health and recovery. By then, it's often much more difficult, as you say. And if one experiences severe consequences at quite a young age, then it also may probably be too late to change lifespan-limiting factors.

What I have seen more often than early death (in multiple hospital stays on a unit with shockingly compromised patients) ... is disability and disrepair of one's physicality: global weakness due to long-term cachexia; loss of teeth; an "old" appearance in people who are actually much younger; respiratory issues from smoking (begun to control weight); fractures or muscoloskeletal pain due to (as you mentioned) osteoporosis or similar conditions (previous fractures/injuries, even in the absence of an osteo dx); cognitive deficits; stunted emotion; chronic sleep disturbance; and neuropathies affecting coordination, gait and sensation.

I think that might be one of the worst parts of living and dying with anorexia ... you actually "live" with it for a long period of slow decompensation into possibly years of disability and dependence.

More than understanding they might die at an earlier age from anorexia, it could be more frightening to hear how long people actually survive anorexia.

If you realize that you're going to exist in this horribly symptomatic but not fatal state for possibly a much longer time than culture would have you believe (since reports almost always speak to high death rates among the disordered) ... that would be far worse, to be trapped in the place and space where you might be at the precipice of an inpatient admission ... when you realize this is a terrible problem, and awful disease, and you don't want it anymore.

But, of course, by the time you're getting on 56 years old, it's probably too late.

IrishUp said...

Well, for one thing, ED tends to strike at an age when "hope I die before I get old" is a widely held sentiment. When I was 16, lung CA, wrinkles, and periodontal disease were NOT going to happen to Moi! just because I smoked cigs. ;D
And I think that in the worst grips of the disease, no amount of rational argument is of any use. "You could die" is worse than "you wont live out all your potential lifespan in your best potential health", and yet it fails to motivate - because of course, motivation is something that moves one's choices. And choice is what the sufferer is *without*.

Now, one would HOPE that doctors would see the inability to eat enough to maintain a normal growth curve and complete daily funtions of living as a SERIOUS MEDICAL PROBLEM. But, as many do not, perhaps this will serve as a great kick in the ASSumptions...

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote


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