Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Is Anorexia Cultural?

That's the $64,000 question. Folks in Brazil are wondering why so many women are dying of anorexia there. Is there something about the culture that is suddenly contributing to a surge of cases? Is the media reporting on anorexia more? What's going on?

More and more, researchers see a genetic component to anorexia and other eating disorders, including chromosomal abnormalities. A 2006 study that looked at anorexia and twins found that genetics accounted for more than half the cases of anorexia, suggesting that people are born with a susceptibility to anorexia and then get triggered during the vulnerable time of adolescence and young adulthood.

Makes sense to me. If culture were the sole culprit, anorexia would be far more prevalent than it is.

Brazil is a country where many people don't have enough to eat; anorexia is typically a disease of "starvation in the midst of abundance." Maybe the rise in prevalence--if there is one--is a symptom of widening gap between the very rich and the rest of the country in Brazil. Maybe it's a sign that the Brazilian economy is improving.

Whatever the statistical explanation, I know one thing for sure: Young women (and men) in Brazil and elsewhere don't have to die. Anorexia can be cured, especially if it's treated early, in adolescence. It's not a cultural metaphor; it's a disease with a tragic trajectory that inflicts a great deal of suffering on anorexics and their families.

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