Eating Disorders & Your Heart

Riti Patel, MD
Cardiologist, Lankenau Heart Group

In 1983, singer Karen Carpenter died from heart failure, the result of complications from anorexia nervosa. Best known for hits like “Close to You” and “We’ve Only Just Begun,” Carpenter was not quite 33 when she passed away.

Anorexia nervosa is a serious eating disorder characterized by extreme food restriction, fear of gaining weight and body dysmorphia. The disease wreaks havoc on the entire body, but its effects on the heart are potentially the most deadly.

About 24 million people in the United States suffer from an eating disorder, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. 95 percent of those people are between the ages of 12 and 25—a period of life when the body is still developing and needs proper nourishment.

In starving their bodies of nutrition by restricting their caloric intake, anorexics begin to lose muscle mass—this includes the heart, which becomes smaller and weaker. Their blood pressure and blood flow drop, and they can also develop an imbalance in minerals, known as electrolyte imbalance. The body relies on electrolytes to maintain the electric current needed for a normal heart beat. Without it, the heartbeat can become dangerously irregular. Electrolyte imbalance is also a concern for bulimics (and anorexics who also suffer from bulimia), an eating disorder characterized by binge-and-purge behavior, the latter brought on by induced vomiting or diarrhea.

While the majority of people develop eating disorders in their teens and early 20s, youth does not protect them from the harm it does to their bodies. The good news is, some of the negative effects can be reversible if that person seeks treatment and regains weight. Still, if you have suffered from an eating disorder in the past or currently struggle with one, it’s important to discuss with your physician possible damage to your heart.

Join Dr. Patel live at Lankenau’s next Wednesday Web Chat, June 26 at 7 p.m.: Chronic Stress: The Real Impact on Your Health & Your Heart. Dr. Patel will also respond to your confidential questions about the impact of eating disorders on the heart. Sign up now.

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