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Learn more about the results we get at Within

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Examining the bulimia death rate

Eating disorders are among the most dangerous—and deadly—diagnoses in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

But even if they don’t directly lead to death, conditions like bulimia nervosa (BN), anorexia nervosa (AN), binge eating disorder (BED), and other eating disorders can cause many health problems and additional medical complications, which can be unpleasant and damage someone's quality of life. 

Despite these grim circumstances, it’s important to remember if someone can find the help they need, there’s always hope of making a full recovery. 

5
 minutes read
Last updated on 
June 13, 2023
May 10, 2024
Person sitting alone
In this article

By the numbers

Statistics on eating disorders are gathered independently by separate institutions, through different reports and studies, so it's difficult to come by universal, or universally agreed-upon statistics, including for the number of people experiencing eating disorder behaviors, and those who succumb to these conditions.

One 2016 study conducted in Germany found a death rate of 1.49 for bulimia nervosa, meaning people struggling with the condition were 1.49 times more likely to die than those without the disorder.1

Meanwhile in the United States, a 2009 study—one of the most recent and widely-cited on the topic—uncovered an estimated death rate of 3.9% for people struggling with bulimia nervosa, which came in second only to anorexia nervosa in terms of deadliest mental illnesses.2

One study found a death rate of 3.9% amongst those struggling with bulimia nervosa.
bulimia death rate graphic

Still, it can be difficult to parcel out whether these deaths are caused directly by the disordered eating behaviors, including binge eating and purging, associated with bulimia nervosa, or by the many mental and physical health complications that often accompany these conditions.

Bulimia nervosa and suicidality

Bulimia nervosa may manifest in a very physical way, but, above all, the condition is a mental illness. As such, the psychiatric disorder is often connected to a number of other mental health conditions, which may also contribute to the overall mortality rate of BN.

People who struggle with bulimia nervosa are far more likely to experience mood disorders, with one study finding up to 75% of patients having some type of affective disorder, and anywhere from 50-65% struggling with major depression.5 Other statistics show people with bulimia are also diagnosed with an anxiety disorder 80% of the time, and with a substance use disorder 36% of the time.6

And while these can become complicating factors in and of themselves, these types of comorbid—or co-occurring—conditions can also lead to increased experiences of suicidality.

Compared to the general population, those with BN were seven times more likely to complete suicide, according to one study.7 And those with BN—along with those with anorexia nervosa—had a much higher prevalence of suicidality overall, with an estimated 25-35% of people with bulimia nervosa attempting suicide at some point.7

Other complications

The eating behaviors and co-occurring mental health concerns associated with BN aren't the only complications connected to the condition. Different methods of purging tend to carry their own complications and risk factors.

For those who purge through self-induced vomiting, many systems within the body can be thrown off, sometimes fatally. This action can lead to serious electrolyte imbalances, which frequently leads to heart failure, a fatal arrhythmia, or sudden death.4 It can also cause serious gastric ruptures or ruptures along the esophagus, which can be deadly or at the very least extremely painful and difficult to manage.4

Similarly, those who engage in laxative abuse as a form of purging are in danger of developing chronic bowel problems, such as cathartic colon and chronic constipation, which can snowball into further health complications.4

Purging through excessive exercise can carry its own complications, such as increased risk of injury or exhaustion. And Other potential complications caused by bulimia nervosa include:3

  • Increased risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Dental erosion
  • Chronic inflamed or sore throat
  • Inflamed salivary glands, AKA chipmunk cheeks or bulimia cheeks
  • Acid reflux, GERD, and other digestive issues

While on their own, these complications may not be deadly, they can lead to a severely decreased quality of life or develop into more serious issues.

Help is available

Bulimia can impact anyone at any time in their life, but eating disorder diagnoses don't have to be a death sentence. Everyone struggling deserves competent care and support. If you struggle with bulimia nervosa or suspect someone you know may be struggling with BN or any other eating disorder, it’s important to seek the appropriate type of treatment as quickly as possible. Reach out to our team today to learn about how to get started.

Call (866) 293-0041

Seeking help for bulimia

Bulimia nervosa may have one of the highest mortality rates, but happily, the condition also has one of the highest recovery rates among eating disorders, with one study finding as many as 62.8% of participants making a full recovery.8

The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) recommends seeking treatment as early as possible, to head off as many of these potential complications as possible, before they've developed to a dangerous level.

Compulsive eating is often a major factor in bulimia, and the longer that type of behavior is allowed to persist, the more difficult it becomes to eradicate from someone’s daily routine. Additionally, the longer someone struggles with bulimia, the more likely it is they will develop physical complications and even be at risk for premature death.

NEDA suggests that those showing signs and symptoms of an eating disorder get a medical exam, to help determine their status and potentially receive advice about the best next steps.9

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.

Resources

  1. Fichter, M. M., & Quadflieg, N. (2016). Mortality in eating disorders - results of a large prospective clinical longitudinal study. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 49(4), 391–401.
  2. Crow, S. J., Peterson, C. B., Swanson, S. A., Raymond, N. C., Specker, S., Eckert, E. D., & Mitchell, J. E. (2009). Increased mortality in bulimia nervosa and other eating disorders. American Journal of Psychiatry, 166(12), 1342–1346. 
  3. Nitsch, A. Dlugosz, H., Gibson, D., Mehler, P. (2021). Medical complications of bulimia nervosa. Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine, 88(6), 333-343. 
  4. Bulimia Nervosa Symptoms & Treatment. Eating Disorder Recovery. Accessed June 2023.
  5. Comorbidities in Eating Disorders. (2011). Psychiatry and Clinical Psychopharmachology. Accessed June 2023.
  6. Eating disorders. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Accessed April 2022.
  7. Patel, R. S., Machado, T., & Tankersley, W. E. (2021). Eating Disorders and Suicidal Behaviors in Adolescents with Major Depression: Insights from the US Hospitals. Behavioral sciences, 11(5), 78.
  8. Given time, most women with anorexia or bulimia will recover. (2016). ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 2022.
  9. First Steps to Getting Help. National Eating Disorders Association. Accessed June 2023.

FAQs

Further reading

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What are the long-term effects of bulimia?

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Antidepressants and bulimia nervosa

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The relationship between orthorexia and bulimia

Orthorexia nervosa (ON) is a more recently acknowledged disorder. While yet to be recognized by the DSM...

Bulimia nervosa in men

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Psychological causes of bulimia nervosa

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What is non-purging bulimia?

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What causes bulimia nervosa?

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Understanding bulimia in men

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Signs and symptoms of bulimia nervosa

Bulimia nervosa (BN) is a serious mental health disorder, but the condition is often marked by a number of...

How to tell your loved ones you have bulimia

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How to talk about bulimia nervosa

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How to stop bulimia

Bulimia nervosa is a complex eating disorder that often comes with feelings of...

How to help someone with bulimia

It can be incredibly difficult when someone you love is struggling with bulimia nervosa (BN). You may feel...

Examining the bulimia death rate

Eating disorders are among the most dangerous—and deadly—diagnoses in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual...

Do I have bulimia?

If you’ve been struggling with your eating habits lately—especially if you’ve found yourself binging or...

Can bulimia kill you?

Bulimia nervosa (BN) is a serious eating disorder that affects up to 4.6% of women and...

What is bulimia nervosa (BN)?

Bulimia nervosa (BN) is an eating disorder that affects between 0.5% and 1.5% of...

Further reading

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