Anorexia is diagnosed if a person has the following characteristics:
- Weight at least 15 percent below what is considered normal for others of the same height and age
- Misses at least three consecutive menstrual cycles (if a female of childbearing age)
- Has an intense fear of gaining weight
- Refuses to maintain the minimal normal body weight
- Believes he or she is overweight, although, in reality, this person is dangerously thin.
The first step in treating an anorexic is to ensure the person's physical health, which involves restoring a healthy weight. Reaching this goal may require hospitalization. Once an anorexic's physical condition is stable, treatment for anorexia usually involves individual psychotherapy and family therapy, during which parents help their child learn to eat again and maintain healthy eating habits on his or her own. Behavioral therapy also has been effective for helping an anorexic return to healthy eating habits. Supportive group therapy may follow, and self-help groups within communities may provide ongoing support.
Anorexia can slow the heart rate and lower blood pressure, increasing the chance of heart failure. Anorexics who use drugs to stimulate vomiting, bowel movements, or urination are also at a high risk for heart failure. Starvation can lead to heart failure, as well as damage to the brain.
Anorexia may also cause hair and nails to grow brittle. Skin may dry out, become yellow, and develop a covering of soft hair called lanugo. Anorexics may also experience mild anemia, swollen joints, reduced muscle mass, and light-headedness as a result of the disease.
In severe cases, anorexics may develop brittle bones that break easily as a result of calcium loss.