Eating Disorders Common in Older Women

Jun 21, 2012 6:00am

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Eating disorders have no boundaries when it comes to age, according to a new study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.

While people may associate eating disorders with teen girls and young women, there may be a growing number of older people who experience the same struggles.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina surveyed more than 1,800 women 50 and older to see how many had eating disorders and to assess the impact of disordered eating in women who engaged in these practices. Sixty-two percent of the women reported that their weight negatively impacted their lives, 8 percent reported purging and 70 percent said they were in the process of dieting or trying to lose weight.

This study “really busts the myths that disordered eating is the province of adolescent and young adult women,” said Dr. Cynthia Bulik, director of the University of North Carolina Eating Disorders Program and lead author of the study. “We have very little clinical research on mid- and late-life eating disorders. The most important thing for clinicians is to keep eating disorders on their radar screen regardless of a patient’s age.”

The women reportedly turned to several unhealthy methods of weight loss, including diet pills, diuretics, laxatives, vomiting and excessive exercise.

In an ABCNews.com story published two weeks ago, Judith Shaw chronicled her 15-year, mid-life battle with anorexia. When she finally checked herself into a residential treatment facility, she was a bit different than her fellow patients. At 53 among teens and 20-somethings, most of her peers could have been her children.

Whether there is more awareness and diagnoses remains unclear, but researchers said eating disorders can be “common” among women over 50.

The triggers may be different among different age groups, but traumatic life events tend to trigger or contribute to eating disorders, no matter the age, according to experts at the National Eating Disorders Association. When an older person experiences the illness, it is usually because an earlier eating disorder has resurfaced, but not always. Disorders can be triggered by divorce, death of a loved one or children moving away.

“It can be hard to come forward because some older patients are concerned about the stigma of having a younger person’s disorder, but we know that eating disorders persist into older adulthood, eating disorders relapse during older adulthood and we know that late onset occurs, too,” said William Walters, helpline manager at NEDA.

“Late onset isn’t at all surprising,” he added. “Midlife can be hard, and just as difficult a transition as the teens and early adulthood, in its own way.”

During midlife, children leave home, couples go through divorces, careers changes and bodies do, too.

“There is no break from our culture’s confusing messages regarding the overestimation of self-worth based on image,” said Walters.

While, on the surface, eating disorders are about food and weight, issues related to stress and trauma end up becoming controlled by the way people eat or look, experts say.

More than 10 million Americans suffer from bulimia, anorexia or other types of eating disorders, according to NEDA,  and millions more suffer from binge eating.

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. Also, 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 that, family, friends and physicians are more likely to become skeptical of a change in eating and exercise habits.

If friends or family do suspect a person is suffering from an eating disorder, Sarah Parker, director of anxiety and eating disorders at the Reeds Treatment Center in New York, 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,” Parker told ABCNews.com in June. “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?’”

Eating disorders can be secretive, but they don’t have to be, said Walters.

“There are thousands of specialists throughout the country that provide thoughtful, patient and respectful caring for adults who are suffering with eating and body image issues,” he said. “Our [NEDA] helpline can help patients find those specialists.”

For information or referrals regarding eating disorders, call 1-800-931-2237.

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