anorexia nervosa

anorexia nervosa
/nerr voh"seuh/, Psychiatry.
an eating disorder primarily affecting adolescent girls and young women, characterized by pathological fear of becoming fat, distorted body image, excessive dieting, and emaciation. Cf. bulimia, bulimarexia.
[1870-75; < NL: nervous anorexia]

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Failure to maintain one's body weight at a normal level, resulting from an intense desire to be thin, a fear of gaining weight, or a disturbance in body image.

Anorexia nervosa usually starts in late adolescence and occurs mostly in young women. One will go to great lengths to resist eating and to lose weight, including bulimia and vigorous exercise. A usual symptom is amenorrhea. Medical complications can be life-threatening. Treatment includes psychological and social therapy.

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      eating disorder characterized by the refusal of an emaciated individual to maintain a normal body weight. A person with anorexia nervosa typically weighs no more than 85 percent of the expected weight for the person's age, height, and sex, and in some cases much less. In addition, people with anorexia nervosa have a psychological disturbance in their ability to evaluate their weight and body shape. They typically consider their emaciated bodies to be attractive or even a bit too fat, do not want to change their diet, and have an intense fear of gaining weight. In women the weight loss is accompanied by amenorrhea (failure to menstruate). An estimated 5 to 10 percent of people with the disorder die as the result of starvation or medical complications that are caused by low weight and a restricted diet.

      Anorexia nervosa is one of two major types of eating disorders. The other is bulimia nervosa, which is characterized by binge eating followed by compensatory behaviour such as self-induced vomiting, fasting, or excessive exercise. Although some people with anorexia nervosa also engage in binge eating followed by purging, in bulimia nervosa body weight generally remains near normal. At least 90 percent of all people diagnosed with anorexia nervosa are women, and most are between 12 and 25 years of age. An estimated 0.5 percent of women in the United States suffer from anorexia nervosa at some time in their life.

      The term anorexia nervosa was first used in the late 19th century by British physician Sir William Withey Gull (Gull, Sir William Withey, 1st Baronet). Cases of what is now recognized as anorexia nervosa have been documented throughout history, but it was not officially recognized as a disorder until 1980, when its incidence increased greatly. Most experts blame the rise in anorexia nervosa on the unrelenting focus in the popular media on young women's appearance, especially the emphasis on thinness as an ideal. This emphasis is especially common in the cultural standards of beauty in affluent industrialized countries, and anorexia nervosa is far more prevalent in the United States, Europe, and industrialized Asia than it is elsewhere in the world.

      Anorexia nervosa usually begins in adolescence or early adulthood. Some of the factors that appear to contribute to its development are a negative body image, a lack of awareness of internal feelings (including hunger and emotions), and various control issues that may stem from obsessional tendencies, a sense of lack of control over one's life as a result of growing up in an intrusive family, or the sense of triumph felt as a result of gaining control over a basic biological need. Other emotional disorders, particularly depression and obsessive-compulsive disorders, often coexist with anorexia nervosa. It is not clear whether these problems are a cause of or a response to anorexia nervosa.

      Research has not identified a clearly effective treatment for anorexia nervosa. Various forms of psychotherapy are used in an attempt to treat it, and family therapy that includes parents and sometimes siblings appears to be of benefit for adolescents. Hospitalization may be required in cases of extreme weight loss because of its potentially life-threatening nature. People with anorexia nervosa typically are proud of their “self-control” and terrified of becoming fat, so the hospital's medical personnel sometimes must resort to coercive measures such as forced feeding or restricting privileges until there is a gain in weight. The disorder has proved to be difficult to treat either with psychotherapy or with antidepressants or other medications. Studies show that about one-half of those who receive treatment for anorexia nervosa remain below their expected body weight even several years after treatment, and many of the rest continue to struggle with eating, dieting, and their body image.

Robert E. Emery

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Universalium. 2010.

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