THE BLOG

Eating Disorders: Be The First Line Of Defense

05/09/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

While the majority of us may not work in the emergency room, or even work in the healthcare industry, we can still save lives.

In the United States, as many as 10 million women and one million men are fighting a life-and-death battle with anorexia or bulimia, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. More often than not, dentists can provide the gateway to critical medical treatment for these individuals.

By becoming aware of certain signs and symptoms, you can uncover illness that may otherwise go unnoticed - and untreated. With the right knowledge, you can save a life.

A deadly disease spreads - faster

Eating disorders are potentially deadly, biologically-based psychiatric illnesses. Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness, nearly 12 times greater than any other cause of death among women between the ages of 15 and 24.

What's more, eating disorders among young women are increasing at an alarming rate. Nationally, the incidence of bulimia in women ages 10 to 39 tripled between 1988 and 1993, and continues to grow.

Anorexia typically begins at the start of puberty and is more common among adolescent girls and young adult women. It affects one to two percent of the female population, and 0.1 to 0.2 percent of men. Because more than 90 percent of all those who are affected are adolescents and young women, the disorder has been characterized as primarily a young woman's illness. But it should also be noted that males and children as young as seven years old have been diagnosed with this illness, as well as middle-aged and elderly women.

Patients are diagnosed with anorexia when their body weight falls to 85 percent or less of their normal, healthy weight. Typically, these patients have an obsessive preoccupation with body weight and calories, as well as an intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat. Their body image is grossly distorted, resulting in an unwarranted psychological impact on how they see and value themselves.

There are two types of anorexia nervosa: the restrictive eating type and the binge-eating/purging type. Binge eaters rapidly consume a large amount of high-calorie food in a very short time - perhaps 1,500 to 3,000 calories or more. Those who purge may do so with self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise or the misuse of laxatives, diuretics or enemas. Approximately 70 to 80 percent of people with bulimia purge by means of self-induced vomiting, while 30 percent use laxatives. Some who purge, however, do so without actually binge-eating first.

Recognizing the danger signs

The physical complications associated with anorexia are potentially life-threatening, since dehydration and malnutrition can damage vital organs. This can result in:

- low blood pressure

- electrolyte imbalance

- cardiac arrhythmias

- thyroid gland deficiencies, which can lead to cold intolerance and constipation

- appearance of fine, baby-like body hair

- bloating or edema

- decrease in white blood cells, leading to increased susceptibility to infection

- osteoporosis

- seizures related to fluid shifts due to excessive diarrhea or vomiting

- kidney damage or failure from chronic use of diuretics

Signs of an eating disorder are:

• Exhibits concern about her weight and attempts to control weight by diet, refusal of food, vomiting or laxative abuse.

• Prolonged exercising despite fatigue and weakness.

• Peculiar patterns regarding handling food.

• Exhibits abnormally fast weight loss, without any other known medical condition.

• Experiences depressive moods and self-deprecating behavior.

If you recognize these signs, fight the urge to remain silent. Remember, denial is a big part of eating disorders - another reason they can become fatal and a major obstacle to recovery. Act in a caring and non-judgmental way, simply stating what you see, and asking how you can help.

Also, you can go to the Web site of the National Eating Disorders Association (www.myneda.org) or call Timberline Knolls at 877-257-9611, and we would be happy to help find a professional in your area. That referral just might save a life.

Kimberly Dennis, M.D., is the medical director at Timberline Knolls (www.timberlineknolls.com). Located in Lemont, Ill., this innovative residential treatment center is designed exclusively for women with emotional disorders, including eating disorders, addiction and self-injury behavior. Dr. Dennis is a member of the American Medical Association, the Academy of Eating Disorders, the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry and the American Society of Addiction Medicine.