- This morning I was shocked to hear that my youngest sister had been admitted to hospital in the early hours, having suffered a heart attack. She is just 40 years old! Jo doesn’t have anorexia, but it led me to think about my own heart and how anorexia would have affected it.
Loss of heart muscle
The heart is a muscle, and can lose mass along with other muscles in the body. This weakens the heart, blood pressure drops, and organs sensitive to blood flow and pressure can potentially fail. With careful weight gain and good nutrition, the heart muscle can strengthen and recover.
Abnormal heart beats
Anorexia can lead to a number of abnormal beating patterns, or rhythms, in the heart. Bradycardia is a very slow beat, and a weakened heart that beats slowly will cause a lower blood pressure and, again, potential organ failure.
Binging and purging can upset the electrolyte balance in the body, and electrolytes sodium and potassium are crucial to the electrical aspects of the heart that regulate beating. Binging and purging, therefore, can cause chaotic heartbeats and cardiac arrest.
Our autonomic nervous system works away behind the scenes, without us having to think about it, to regulate functions such as blood pressure, breathing rate, and body temperature. For example, if you stand from sitting, or vice versa, subtle changes in the function of blood vessels and the heart occur to maintain blood pressure. Weakened blood vessels and heart muscle can impair these functions, resulting in dizziness, fainting and even cognitive changes.
Heart valve damage
Loss of heart muscle mass can cause the mitral valve, between the upper and lower chambers of the heart, to close less tightly and prolapse into the upper chambers. This makes the heart a less effective pump and affects about 1/5th of anorexia sufferers. This damage, unfortunately, tends to be permanent.
Anorexia has a high death rate, and about half of the deaths from anorexia will be caused by damage to the heart.