Although anyone can develop an eating disorder, females between the ages of 12 and 35 are the most vulnerable, according to Angela Guarda, assistant director of the Eating and Weight Disorders Program at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
In addition to often causing severe mental depression, eating disorders can lead to dangerous medical conditions. Anorexics lose bone density, which makes them more vulnerable to fractures, Dr. Guarda says. Some develop cardiomyopathy, which weakens the heart muscles, or potentially lethal heart arrhythmias.
Through various forms of continuous purging, bulimics can erode their teeth and develop ulcers and hemorrhoids. They can also deplete their bodies' supplies of potassium, risking lethal heart conditions.
The major causes of death among those with eating disorders are heart malfunction and suicide, Dr. Guarda says.
General symptoms of disorders include a marked increase or decrease in weight which is unrelated to a medical condition; development of abnormal eating habits such as ritualized behaviors at mealtimes; compulsive or excessive exercising; and feelings of isolation, depression or irritability.
Here's a list of disorders and additional symptoms.
* Anorexia Nervosa: A condition of self-starvation and excessive weight loss.
Signs include refusal to maintain weight at or above a minimally normal weight for height and age; intense fear of gaining weight; a distorted body image; in females, the loss of three consecutive menstrual periods.
Anorexics often skip meals, restrict the kinds of foods they will eat and increase the amount they exercise. They may wear baggy clothing to hide their shapes. They constantly talk about feeling fat or needing to lose weight. They may socialize less with friends, particularly if a social occasion involves a meal. They often want to eat meals alone and insist on preparing their own food. They usually eat very slowly, often taking an hour to eat a meal.
* Bulimia Nervosa: A condition of secret cycles of binge eating followed by purging.
Signs include repeated episodes of bingeing and compensatory behaviors including vomiting, abusing laxatives, exercising excessively, fasting and abusing diuretics; feeling "out of control" during a period of overeating; excessive concern with body shape and weight; frequent dieting. Some bulimics will develop "chipmunk cheeks" from the enlargement of their salivary glands.
Bulimics often make trips to the bathroom to vomit after meals. Although they may eat very large quantities of food very quickly in public, they usually only overeat when they are alone. They often show a pattern of skipping meals, then overeating.
* Compulsive overeating/Bingeing Disorder: A condition of impulsive gorging or continuous eating. While there is no purging associated with this disorder, compulsive eaters may fast sporadically or go on repetitive diets. Their body weight may vary from normal to mild, moderate or severe obesity.
Some situations that can trigger an unhealthy preoccupation with weight loss are the onset of puberty, going away to college, getting engaged -- some women become obsessed with the notion of losing weight to look 'good' in a wedding dress -- pregnancy and divorce.
For more details about these conditions and for information about programs which help diagnose and treat eating disorders, call the Maryland Association for Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Inc. at (410) 938-3199 or (410) 730-6151.