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Causes of anorexia nervosa are thought to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors. The precise cause is unknown. Scientists have studied the role of personality, genetics, environment, and biochemistry of people with anorexia. Certain personality traits seem to be in common among these people, including perfectionism, low self-esteem, anxiety-proneness, and social isolation (which usually occurs after the behavior associated with anorexia nervosa begins). Many people who develop anorexia nervosa had been very good students and athletes or highly creative. Eating disorders also tend to run in families. Females are more often affected than males, and teenagers more often than adults. Relatives of someone with anorexia nervosa are ten times more likely to have an eating disorder themselves than relatives of someone without anorexia nervosa. If you have a mother or sister with anorexia, you are more likely to develop it. Parents who diet excessively themselves and are preoccupied with their looks or criticize their children's bodies are more likely to have a child with anorexia.

Behavioral and environmental influences play a vital role in the vulnerability to developing anorexia nervosa. Stressful life events or transitions may precipitate the illness. In studies of the biochemical functions of people with eating disorders, scientists have found that the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine are decreased in those with anorexia nervosa who are at a low weight. People with anorexia nervosa also tend to have higher than normal levels of cortisol (a brain hormone released in response to stress) and vasopressin (a brain chemical found to be abnormal in patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder.) Traumatic events such as rape can lead to the onset of anorexia.

Culture plays a significant role in the development of anorexia nervosa. Women in the United States particularly are under great pressure to fit a certain ideal of beauty. Images of flawless, thin females in magazines, on television and in movies make it hard for women to feel good about their normal weight bodies. This is especially true for vulnerable young females who are just beginning to develop their own sense of identity. More and more men are also feeling the pressure to have a perfect body. Anorexia eating behavior is thought to originate from feelings of unattractiveness and “fatness.” It is important to remember that people with anorexia over-estimate the size of their own bodies.

Studies also suggest that people with anorexia nervosa share a genetic risk with other psychological difficulties and mental illnesses , such as clinical depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, high levels of anxiety and one or more personality disorders. In addition, one reliable study shows that those with anorexia have poor cognitive flexibility (the ability to change past patterns of thinking, particularly those linked to the function of the frontal lobes and executive system.)


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