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Bulimia may put women's hearts, lives at risk

A young woman in a yellow sweater looks at the camera.

Nov. 5, 2019—Women who have the eating disorder bulimia may have a heightened risk of heart disease and early death, a new study suggests.

Bulimia affects more women than men, but anyone can have it, the Office on Women's Health reports. The condition involves repeated bingeing (eating large amounts of food at one time) and purging (ridding the body of those calories by vomiting, exercising excessively or taking laxatives).

Because it prevents the body from getting the nutrients it needs, bulimia can cause serious health problems, including some that affect the heart. But it's very treatable.

Risks revealed

Researchers followed more than 400,000 Canadian women for up to 12 years. Some of the women were hospitalized for severe bulimia. The research team compared these women to a control group of women who were hospitalized for pregnancy-related reasons.

Among the key findings: The women with bulimia had more than four times the risk of heart and blood vessel diseases as the women without bulimia. They were also nearly five times as likely to die from any cause.

The women with bulimia remained at higher risk for about five years after their first hospital stay. Then the risk tapered off.

How might bulimia hurt the heart?

Bulimia appears to increase the risk for:

  • Heart attacks.
  • Coronary heart disease.
  • Strokes.
  • Problems with the heart's electrical system.

That could be for a number of reasons, the research team said. For one, repeated bingeing and purging might lead to high cholesterol levels, which can clog arteries. Bulimia might also lower levels of estrogen, a hormone that helps protect the heart. There may also be a shared genetic connection—both bulimia and heart disease can run in families.

The authors of this study say women with severe bulimia should know about the link to heart disease—and work with their doctors to protect their heart health.

The study was published in JAMA Psychiatry.

Be wise about bulimia

What are the causes of bulimia? How is it treated? Learn more about the condition.

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