Objective: The present review addresses the outcome of anorexia nervosa and whether it changed over the second half of the 20th century.
Method: A total of 119 study series covering 5,590 patients suffering from anorexia nervosa that were published in the English and German literature were analyzed with regard to mortality, global outcome, and other psychiatric disorders at follow-up.
Results: There were large variations in the outcome parameters across studies. Mortality estimated on the basis of both crude and standardized rates was significantly high. Among the surviving patients, less than one-half recovered on average, whereas one-third improved, and 20% remained chronically ill. The normalization of the core symptoms, involving weight, menstruation, and eating behaviors, was slightly better when each symptom was analyzed in isolation. The presence of other psychiatric disorders at follow-up was very common. Longer duration of follow-up and, less strongly, younger age at onset of illness were associated with better outcome. There was no convincing evidence that the outcome of anorexia nervosa improved over the second half of the last century. Several prognostic features were isolated, but there is conflicting evidence. Most clearly, vomiting, bulimia, and purgative abuse, chronicity of illness, and obsessive-compulsive personality symptoms are unfavorable prognostic features.
Conclusions: Anorexia nervosa did not lose its relatively poor prognosis in the 20th century. Advances in etiology and treatment may improve the course of patients with anorexia nervosa in the future.