Cases That Test Your Skills

Food for thought: Dangerous weight loss in an older adult

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EVALUATION Poor insight, normal lab results

During her evaluation, Ms. L appears cachectic and frail. She has a heavily constricted affect and is guarded, dismissive, and vague. Although her thought processes are linear and goal-directed, her insight into her condition is extremely poor and she appears surprised when clinicians inform her that her self-neglect would lead to death. Instead, Ms. L insists she is eating healthily and demonstrates severe anxiety in relation to her GI symptoms.

Ms. L is oriented to person, place, and time. She scores 27/30 on the Montreal Cognitive Assessment, indicating normal cognition. She denies any depressive symptoms or suicidal intent. She does not appear to be internally preoccupied and denies having auditory or visual hallucinations or manic symptoms.

A neurologic examination reveals that her cranial nerves are normal, and cerebellar function, strength, and sensory testing are intact. Her gait is steady and she walks without a walker. Despite her severely low BMI and recent history of self-neglect, Ms. L’s laboratory results are remarkably normal and show no liver, metabolic, or electrolyte abnormalities, no signs of infection, and normal vitamin B12 levels. She has slightly elevated creatinine and blood urea nitrogen levels, but a normal glomerular filtration rate.

Her medical history is significant for squamous cell esophageal cancer, treated with radiofrequency ablation. Although Ms. L is constantly worried about the recurrence of cancer, pathology reports demonstrate no esophageal dysplasia. However, she does show evidence of an approximately 1 cm × 1 cm mild, noncircumferential esophageal stenosis, likely resulting from radio­frequency ablation.

The authors’ observations

Several health- and physical symptom-related psychiatric disorders have overlapping features, which can complicate the differential diagnosis (Table 11). Ms. L presented to the ED with a severely low BMI of 13.5 kg/m2, obsessions regarding specific types of food, and preoccupations regarding her esophagus. Despite her extensive psychiatric history (including intense fears regarding food), we ruled out a primary psychotic disorder because she did not describe auditory or visual hallucinations and never appeared internally preoccupied. While her BMI and persistent minimization of the extent of her disease meet criteria for anorexia nervosa, she denied body dysmorphia and did not have any fear of gaining weight.

A central element of Ms. L’s presentation was her anxiety regarding how certain types of foods impact her health as well as her anxieties regarding her esophagus. While Ms. L was in remission from esophageal cancer and had a diagnosis of esophageal dysphagia, these preoccupations and obsessions regarding how certain types of foods affect her esophagus drove her to self-neglect and thus represent pathologic thought processes out of proportion to her symptoms. Illness anxiety disorder was considered because Ms. L met many of its criteria: preoccupation with having a serious illness, disproportionate preoccupation with somatic symptoms if they are present, extreme anxiety over health, and performance of health-related behaviors.1 However, illness anxiety disorder is a diagnosis of exclusion, and 1 criterion is that these symptoms cannot be explained by another mental disorder. We felt other diagnoses better fit Ms. L’s condition and ruled out illness anxiety disorder.

Ms. L’s long history of food and non-food–related obsessions and compulsions that interrupted her ability to perform daily activities were strongly suggestive for OCD. Additionally, her intense preoccupation, high level of anxiety, amount of time and energy spent seeking care for her esophagus and GERD symptoms, and the resulting significant disruption of daily life, met criteria for somatic symptom disorder (SSD). However, we did not believe that a diagnosis of OCD and SSD alone explained the entirety of Ms. L’s clinical picture. Despite ruling out anorexia nervosa, Ms. L nonetheless demonstrated disordered eating.

Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) is an eating disorder in which patients restrict their diet and do not meet nutritional needs for any number of reasons, do not experience body dysmorphia, and do not fear weight gain.1 A common feature of ARFID is a fear of negative consequences from eating specific types of food.2 Table 21,2 summarizes additional clinical features of ARFID. Although ARFID is typically diagnosed in children and adolescents, particularly in individuals with autism with heightened sensory sensitivities, ARFID is also common among adult patients with GI disorders.3 In a retrospective chart review of 410 adults ages 18 to 90 (73% women) referred to a neurogastroenterology care center, 6.3% met the full criteria for ARFID and 17.3% had clinically significant avoidant or restrictive eating behaviors. Among patients with ARFID symptoms, 93% stated that a fear of GI symptoms was the driver of their avoidant or restrictive eating behaviors.2 Patients with GI diseases often develop dietary control and avoidance coping mechanisms to alleviate their symptoms.4 These strategies can exacerbate health anxieties and have a detrimental effect on mental health.5 Patients with GI disorders have a high degree of comorbidity with affective disorders, including anxiety disorders.6 These trends may arise from hypervigilance and the need to gain control over physical symptoms.7 Feeling a need for control, actions driven by anxiety and fear, and the need for compensatory behaviors are cardinal features of OCD and eating disorders.8 Multiple studies have demonstrated comorbidities between irritable bowel syndrome and eating disorders,9 SSD,10 and OCD.11 Taken together with observations that ARFID is also found in patients with GI disorders,2 these findings demonstrate that patients with a history of GI disease are at high risk of developing extreme health anxieties and behavioral coping strategies that can lead to disordered eating.

The rise in “healthy” eating materials online—particularly on social media—has created an atmosphere in which misinformation regarding diet and health is common and widespread. For patients with OCD and a predisposition to health anxiety, such as Ms. L, searching online for nutrition information and healthy living habits can exacerbate food-related anxieties and can lead to a pathological drive for purity and health.12Although not included in DSM-5, orthorexia nervosa was identified in 1997 as a proposed eating disorder best characterized as an obsession with healthy eating with associated restrictive behaviors.13 Patients with this disorder are rarely focused on losing weight, and orthorexic eating behaviors have been associated with both SSD and OCD.12,14 As in Ms. L’s case, patients with orthorexia nervosa demonstrate intrusive obsessions with nutrition, spend excessive amount of time researching nutrition, and fixate on food quality.12 Throughout Ms. L’s hospitalization, even as her food-related magical thinking symptoms improved, she constantly informed her care team that she had been “eating healthily” even though she was severely cachectic. Patients with SSD and OCD prone to health anxieties are at risk of developing pathologic food beliefs and dangerous eating behaviors. These patients may benefit from psychoeducation regarding nutrition and media literacy, which are components of effective eating disorder programs.15

Continue to: The authors' observations...

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