Do You Know the Deadliest Mental Health Disorder? (It’s Not What You Think)

Do You Know the Deadliest Mental Health Disorder? (It’s Not What You Think)

If you think depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder are the mental illnesses most commonly linked to an early death, you’re wrong. Eating disorders—including anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and binge eating— are the most lethal mental health conditions, according to research in Current Psychiatry Reports.

How bad is it? The Eating Disorders Coalition reports that every 62 minutes, at least one person loses their life as a direct result of an eating disorder. Anorexia nervosa is linked to the highest mortality rate of all, and sadly, one in five individuals with anorexia who die take their own life, according to findings in Archives of General Psychiatry.

The Basics of Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa (AN) is an eating disorder in which people have a distorted body image and view themselves as overweight or obese even though they may be significantly underweight. People with AN tend to have intense fear about gaining weight, and they severely limit the amount of food they eat.

At least 30 million Americans will struggle with an eating disorder during their lifetime, and an estimated 0.9% of women will suffer from anorexia. Men also suffer from the disorder, but at a lower rate than women. Experts suggest eating disorders may be vastly underreported, and the actual numbers of people who are struggling may be much higher than the published statistics.

And the problem isn’t getting any better. In fact, hospitalization rates for eating disorders have been on the rise, jumping 18% from 1999 to 2006.

How Anorexia Nervosa Harms the Body and Brain

Anorexia is such a deadly disease because it ravages physical health. It’s well known that over time, it damages the cardiovascular system, strains the gastrointestinal system, and disrupts neurohormone production. What many people don’t realize is that it also has negative impacts on the brain, including the following:

  • Insufficient calories: Your brain accounts for only 2% percent of your body’s weight, yet it uses 20 to 30% of the calories you consume and 20% of the oxygen and blood flow in your body. Putting the body into chronic starvation mode means your brain isn’t getting the calories it needs to function optimally.
  • Changes in brain structure: Research has found that people with AN have decreased gray matter volumes.
  • Decreases cognitive function: In a brain imaging study among women with the condition who have stopped menstruating, changes in brain structure were noted as well as declines in cognitive ability in several areas

Why Anorexia Gets Overlooked

Considering its devastating impact on physical and mental health, you might expect healthcare professionals to be vigilant about early diagnosis and treatment. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.

Part of the reason why eating disorders, such as anorexia, are so deadly is that they aren’t always taken seriously. These conditions are often dismissed as insignificant. Family members and loved ones may think the person struggling is just “going through a phase” and will “snap out of it.” But eating disorders are deeply complex conditions that rarely just go away.

In the healthcare arena, a lack of training about eating disorders is contributing to too many avoidable deaths, according to a 2019 report in BMJ. In this paper, experts reveal that training on these deadly conditions is limited to “just a few hours.” This needs to change.

Another pressing issue lies in the fact that because most healthcare and psychiatric care providers don’t look at the brain, they can’t always effectively diagnose and treat co-occurring mental health conditions. And they often take a one-size-fits-all approach to treatment, which will never work because eating disorders and mental health conditions aren’t single or simple disorders.

The Road to Healing

Understanding any underlying dysfunction in the brain is critical to getting a complete and accurate diagnosis and personalized treatment plan to start the healing process. Brain SPECT imaging can help you see that your problems have a biological basis and that it isn’t your fault. The most beneficial treatment plans go far beyond nutritional counseling and include addressing psychiatric issues as well as assessing any other biological psychological, social, or spiritual factors that may contribute to the condition. With a comprehensive approach, even people who have long-term eating disorders can recover and get their life back.

At Amen Clinics, we use brain SPECT imaging as part of a wrap-around evaluation and treatment plan for people struggling with eating disorders and co-occurring mental health conditions. We believe in using the least toxic, most effective therapies and strategies to optimize your brain function to help you regain control of your eating and learn to love your life again.

If you want to join the tens of thousands of people who have already enhanced their brain health and overcome their symptoms at Amen Clinics, speak to a specialist today at 888-288-9834. If all our specialists are busy helping others, you can also schedule a time to talk.


  1. This is a pretty narrow scope of eating disorders. Anorexia Nervosa, if not fatal, typically turns into bulimia. it would be nice to see something more specific on PMDD and it’s relationship to these eating disorders.

    Thank you.

    Comment by Jenny Olson — February 24, 2020 @ 4:57 AM

  2. I admit I sympathize with those who know they have chosen a suicide diet because they would rather be dead than fat. The one blessing about being fat is it will kill you so you don’t have to live in a fat body. However, I do respect they are wrong in how they judge their bodies. There is a famous bodybuilder coach who in his early teenage years was overweight and he developed anorexia nervosa. A physician in his family put him in treatment and as he built up his emaciated body through a high protein diet and added BCAA combined with exercise, he became muscular, eventually becoming a bodybuilder and an online coach for others wanting something more healthy, beautiful, and above all, more dignified than what obesity or anorexia nervosa has to offer. He went on through higher education to become a professional engineer and is on two websites: Hugo Rivera, (his name), and Audiohaulics as a partner and marketing manager with a former NASA electrical engineer Gene DeSalla who counsel audiophiles. They were expelled from the Florida Audiofest for exposing the bad physics used to sell the public loudspeaker cables costing up to $27,000 where $30 for cables will sound the same.

    Comment by Robert Vincelette — February 24, 2020 @ 5:05 AM

  3. Referring to the comment above, by Robert Vincellete…” I admit I sympathize with those who know they have chosen a suicide diet because they would rather be dead than fat.” This is but one misconception and unEDucated comment often espoused among those who make assumptions about the etiology of eating disorders.
    Those who have eating Disorders, specifically anorexia, suffer from what is called Anosnogosia…they CANNOT recognize their illness and their severe weight loss, if that occurs. Another evidence based fact…a person can have life threatening anorexia and seem perfectly fine weight wise…even at an above avg BMI. This disease at its root, is NOT about weight, although it may be triggered by a desire to diet, eat healthier, get in shape,…if a person is genetically predisposed to EDs then these seemingly everyday choices that millions make, can trigger the ED in that predisposed individual. This is NOT a disease of choice, any more than cancer or any other disease is. To this suffering from anorexia, the act of eating for them illicits a fear so intense, it could be comparable to asking you to enter a room and lock the door behind you, and that room is filled with slithering snakes or (fill in the blank with whatever would make you fight or flee…scorpions?). This is what the anorexia affected brain does…convince the person with loud, screaming, panicked voices that IF they put that food in their mouth, they are worthless, they will die, they are a piece of #, etc. non stop, loud, torturous and then…the torture STOPS only when the person doesn’t eat.
    Please, please…do research before making misguided assumptions. Unless you’ve lived it or cared for someone with an eating disorder, you have no idea just how evil and destructive it is. How financially devastating it is. How frightening it is. How misunderstood it is.

    Comment by Faith — February 24, 2020 @ 5:55 AM

  4. Have friend who suffered from this-was taken to ER on regular basis for IV’S. Doctors did not address this trend-kept ordering sleep meds.
    She did refuse appointments family made for her. Her body became so depleted she fell off commode one day and broke her neck!!!!!! her husband did CPR until paramedics came. She has been on ventilator with constant infections. Sher will very soon be with God.

    Take this seriously!!!!!!

    Comment by Mary Kirby — February 24, 2020 @ 8:01 AM

  5. Just wondering if you’re going to mention eating disorders on your podcast, The Brain Warriors Way? I find the content invaluable and love the work Daniel and Tana Amen do, but I notice there isn’t much on eating disorders, and more appropriately, eating disorders and brain health.
    I have lived with anorexia and bulimia actively for 7 years now and in recent years, noticed a steep decline in cognitive function and emotional regulation. As time goes on, and as I commit to actively engaging in treatment – the more I seem to be struggling in all aspects of my life and I feel like I’m losing hope.

    I’d love to see some more content by you guys on this topic. I love the information you guys have on the podcast and your websites and think eating disorders are an important mental health disorder that definitely needs more awareness amongst society.

    Comment by Tanika — February 27, 2020 @ 12:53 AM

  6. Hello Tanika, thank you for reaching out. Yes, we do have content on our podcast about eating disorders:

    We also have additional content on our website:

    And in our blog:

    Comment by Amen Clinics — February 27, 2020 @ 6:28 AM

  7. Thank you Faith!!! Have struggled with Anorexia my entire life and we do see a fat person in the mirror. I have a love/hate relationship with food. It kills by taking out your organs one by one. Poor body image is brutal to overcome. The stigma is still there though irregardless of the education on the subject.

    Comment by Kathy Daniels Johnston — February 28, 2020 @ 7:56 AM

  8. Anorexia Nervosa is serious!
    I have been 100 lbs overweight at my top weight. More people are heavy and overeaters. I do appreciate how you do talk about weight and take it seriously. Being heavy is serious too, causes lots of problems, and depression and suicide is common too. I have found a lot of help and support through Overeaters Anonymous. I needed face to face, phone to phone constant support! I am now 80 lbs. down from my top weight.
    I do well with a low low carb diet but without the 12 steps, tools… working the program I would still be struggling!

    Comment by Christine H. — March 4, 2020 @ 6:53 AM

  9. Thank you for addressing this topic. Eating Disorders are really Mental Disorders with dangerous physical consequences. When I brought my daughter to her (female) Pediatrician at 17 and expressed my concern, she turned to my daughter and stated, “honey, boys like a little meat on a girl”. She then handed us a 1 page list of daily food requirements. After reading valuable books and an exhaustive search we found a mental health professional and nutritionist specializing in Eating Disorders. And, a top University here in California had no mental Health specialist in their Student health Care Center. We did the hard work and thankfully have a great outcome.

    Comment by Connie V. — February 25, 2022 @ 8:23 AM

  10. I am thrilled to see this topic addressed. My daughter has been struggling with anorexia since she was 11. She is now 42 and struggling still. When she was first diagnosed, ( which took a full year, was very difficult and took lots of effort to get the pediatrician to take action) she was in a treatment facility for a month and then in therapy . She did well for a while but it’s a constant battle. She’s since been in the hospital and treatment about 8 times. Most times she’s in treatment for 6 to 8 months. She’s been very close to death several times, her weight dropped to around 60 lbs, unable to move, function. She has permanent organ damage, her hair comes and goes, she has permanent paralysis in one hand and has lost several teeth due to anorexia. She’s a strong woman, has faith and is determined but this disease is powerful. It is not a choice. She has a family who loves her , lots of support and she’s had access to the best doctors, facilities , nutritionists and therapists. We are considering the Amen clinic for her so I’m thankful to see this article.

    Comment by Laura — February 27, 2022 @ 4:18 AM

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