Eating Disorders in Older Women on the Rise

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Older women often fly under the radar with their disorders, though. Doctors are much more apt to notice eating disorders in teens who have lost an excessive amount of weight, or, if a young woman stops menstruating, a telltale sign of anorexia, a doctor will investigate further. Parents are usually involved with the feeding and care of teens, and because of this, family, friends and physicians are more likely to become skeptical of a change in eating and exercise habits.

Shaw's period stopped in her early 40s, but doctors chalked it up to early menopause. She was anemic, but doctors treated her lack of healthy red blood cells as an isolated incident. Her bone density deteriorated, but, again, physicians treated the osteoporosis on its own. Friends admired her weight loss and exercise tenacity.

While the health risks of an eating disorder are damaging at any age, older women are at an even increased risk because their bodies have aged more, said Parker.

"There can be significant damage to the heart and heart muscles," said Parker. "In really severe cases, the heart can stop functioning. Fat stores in the brain can become depleted and affect cognitive and neurological functioning. It can also result in osteoporosis and organ failure."

If friends or family do suspect a person is suffering from an eating disorder, Parker encouraged people to remember that the illness is an "expression of pain."

"Families and friends tend to say, 'you should eat more,' or 'you need to exercise less,' but that can turn into a negative cycle very quickly," said Parker. "Try to respond to the pain over the behavior by saying something like 'it seems like you're not doing very well, can we help you speak with a therapist or minister?'"

When she finally received treatment for the disease, Shaw began sculpting as a therapeutic way of coping. She'd bring her sculptures to therapy session, and her art soon became a springboard for a more in-depth look into her disordered eating habits.

Her series, which she titled, "Body of Work," has now been featured in exhibits at several top medical schools, including Washington University School of Medicine, Columbia University Medical Center and New York University School of Medicine. Many professors have used her work as a teaching tool, to show medical students in a "visceral way" what patients experience when they suffer from an eating disorder.

"I never went to college, and that's where some of my feelings of worthlessness came into play," she said. "I always wanted to be a doctor. That may never happen, but it's a bit ironic. In a way, I found my way into medical school because my art is inspiring doctors to understand this disease. That definitely gives me a sense of worth and purpose."

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