Anorexia Nervosa

By Jerilyn Watson

This is Bill White with the VOA Special English Science Report.

Experts say about one-percent of young women in the United States are almost starving themselves to death. They are suffering from a sickness called anorexia nervosa. These young women have an abnormal fear of getting fat. They have purposely starved themselves so they weigh at least fifteen percent less than their normal weight.

The National Institute of Mental Health says one in ten cases of anorexia nervosa leads to serious medical problems. These problems can cause death from heart failure. Or, anorexia can lead young women to kill themselves.

At first, a person with anorexia develops joint and muscle problems. There is a lack of iron in the blood. As the sickness progresses, a young woman's monthly menstrual periods stop. Her breathing, heartbeat and blood pressure rates decrease.

The thyroid gland slows production of chemicals needed for healthy performance of the body's cells. The important substance calcium is lost from the bones, sometimes causing bones to break. Sometimes the brain gets smaller, causing changes in how a person thinks and acts.

Scientists say many anorexia nervosa patients have other mental and emotional problems. Anorexics have poor opinions about themselves. They feel helpless. Their attempts to become extremely thin may represent efforts to take control of their lives. They may suffer from fearfulness or continued deep sadness called depression. They may become dependent on illegal drugs.

Some anorexic people also have obsessive-compulsive disorder. They feel a need to continually repeat an action. For example, they may repeatedly wash their hands although their hands are clean.

Researchers suspect a connection between depression and anorexia. Important chemical messengers in the central nervous system known as neurotransmitters control hormone production. The neurotransmitters serotonin (sair-ah-TONE-in) and norepinephrine (nor-eh-pih-NEF-rin) do not perform normally in people with depression. Recently researchers have discovered that these neurotransmitters also are decreased in anorexia patients.

Fluoxetine (flu-OX-ih-tin) is a drug used to treat depression. It affects seratonin levels in the body. New research suggests it may also help young women suffering from anorexia.

This VOA Special English Science Report was written by Jerilyn Watson. This is Bill White.