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
- Co-occurring mental health disorders: Research shows that approximately 50% of people with AN also suffer from anxiety disorders, including obsessive compulsive disorder and social phobia. Depression is seen in about 33-50% of individuals with the condition. Other mental health problems often seen in people with eating disorders include PTSD and substance abuse.
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.