That startling finding comes from a Canadian study presented Tuesday at the Radiological Society of North America's annual meeting in Chicago, according to HealthDay News.
Researchers used a new method of assessing computed tomography (CT) scans to analyze the lungs of 14 anorexia patients and found the malnutrition in these patients changed the physical structure of their lungs.
"There is a reduction in the amount of lung tissue in patients with anorexia nervosa," lead author Harvey O. Coxson, an assistant professor of radiology at the University of British Columbia and an investigator at Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute at Vancouver General Hospital, says in a prepared statement.
"It is unclear whether these structural changes are permanent, but if they are, early therapy is important in patients who have anorexia," Coxson says.
Voluntary starvation is a characteristic of anorexia nervosa.
Coxson and his colleagues found the lung structures of anorexia nervosa patients showed loss of tissue that helps deliver oxygen to the rest of the body. Similar changes are seen in people with emphysema caused by cigarette smoking. These changes result in shortness of breath and other respiratory problems.
"These results may influence the timing of nutritional support for anorexia patients to avoid or reverse this damage to the lung. Further, if malnutrition causes emphysema in anorexic patients, it may contribute to emphysema in smokers. If so, nutritional treatment may slow the development of emphysema in smokers," Coxson says.
According to the National Institutes of Health, anorexia affects up to 3.7 percent of females. Sufferers think they are overweight, even thought they are quite thin, and starve themselves to try to lose weight. Anorexic women die at 12 times the average rate for women aged 15-24.
Emphysema, or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, claiming 119,000 lives in 2000. At least 12 million adults have been diagnosed with it, and the ailment was blamed for $32 billion in costs in 2002.