New Study Of Anorexia: Too Thin May Be More Dangerous Than Too Fat

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In recent years, the focus of public debate about nutrition has been about obesity. News outlets have decried the epidemic of diabetes and heart disease, shows like "The Biggest Loser" have put weight loss center stage and the First Lady has made fighting childhood obesity one of her key priorities.

But it is possible that we've lost sight of a more dangerous problem. A new study shows that anorexia may actually be a more lethal psychiatric disorder. While certainly less widespread than obesity, this problem affects thousands of people and could put their lives more immediately at risk than over-eating.

The study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry in July 2011 found that anorexia, and its ability to lead to other mental disorders, has a six-times greater risk of death if not treated early. For an anorexic in his or her 20s, there is an 18-times higher risk of death compared to his or her peers. Dr. Jon Arcelus of the University of Leicester, England, analyzed 36 different studies between 1966-2010 and concluded that there is a rate of 5.1 deaths per one thousand people with anorexia per year.

The study found that anorexia often leads to schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression. One in five deaths caused by anorexia are due to suicide. People who suffer from anorexia have two times the risk of schizophrenia and three times the risk of bipolar disorder compared to the general public.

That isn't to say that obesity is not a dangerous problem in its own right. Statistics show that the life expectancy of a moderately obese person can be shortened by as much as 5 years. Extreme obesity can shorten life expectancy by more than a dozen years.

But anorexia often affects young people, not just shortening life, but ending it at a frighten early age. Also, it is associated with the disabling psychological conditions that can make life miserable for people suffering from the disorder.

While the statistics on anorexia are sobering, there is hope. Like other dangerous illnesses, the impact of anorexia can be limited through treatment. Research shows that early diagnosis and treatment can be the difference between life and death. By treating the physical and the psychological effects, survivors have moved forward to live healthy lifestyles.

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