Slimmers' disease proves not so deadly

February 7, 1997

THE WORK of two Vancouver psychologists is helping dispel the belief that anorexia nervosa kills thousands of young North American women and girls every year.

Stanley Coren and Paul Hewitt of the University of British Columbia have found that the disorder kills relatively few people and those whose lives it claims are more often elderly and male.

Working with a database of 10.5 million death certificates - all the recorded deaths in the United States from 1986-90 - the two found only 724 listing anorexia nervosa as the primary cause of death or one of the contributing factors. That comes out to 149 deaths a year or 6.67 per 100,000.

Professor Coren said: "That's quite contrary to what everyone is telling us. Lots of people are flogging the notion that anorexia nervosa is a fatal disease which attacks vulnerable young girls."

Professor Coren said previous published numbers of deaths from the disorder were so divergent that he and Professor Hewitt wanted to come up with a true number. What he found was a number far lower than he expected.

"I was astonished," said Professor Coren, who wants to make it clear that his study is not looking at prevalence of anorexia nervosa. His findings, published in The Medical Post, a United States journal, and being reviewed by the British Journal of Psychiatry reveal the median age of death from the condition to be 69 for women and 80 for men. Two-thirds of anorexia-related deaths occurred in people over the age of 45.

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