Eating Disorders at Midlife

Stories about eating disorders and older adults pop up periodically, and a new study is likely to stoke the conversation. It reveals the prevalence for women of anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating, thought to be the domain of the under 18 set.

In a University of North Carolina online survey of 1,849 women age 50+, 13 percent reported eating disorders, with 79 percent  saying their weight or shape negatively affected their self-image. Forty-one percent checked their body every day, while 36 percent had spent at least half their time in the last five years trying to lose weight.

Eight percent of survey participants admitted to purging (vomiting or other ways to get rid of food), including some women in the 75-84-age group. Ways to shed weight besides purging included diet pills, excessive exercise, diuretics and laxatives. Binge eating is the most common type of disorder and men are in the minority for all types of eating problems. For instance, they account for just 10-15 percent of bulimia sufferers.

Many of the women had eating issues in their teens that resurfaced later in life. In one National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) study, 86 percent surveyed said their eating disorder was evident by age 20, yet just 50 percent were cured.

But an eating issue can be a first-time problem in midlife, too. It may be triggered by stress and major life changes-caring for a loved one, widowhood, an illness, loss of parents, divorce, retirement, children leaving home or money worries, for instance. Then, add to that the pressure to look good-and be thin-with hormonal and other body changes that can pack on the pounds.

Some older women are reluctant to seek help for an “adolescent problem” associated with their daughter’s generation, making it even more difficult to acknowledge-and increasing the chances of depression.

The Renfrew Center in Radnor, Pa., has a Thirty-Something and Beyond program. With the deluge of baby boomers, there are likely to be even more cases and specialized treatment centers.

So, be on the lookout and don’t rule out an eating disorder just because someone is in mid or late life. Since caregivers are under tremendous stress, they may be at risk. And so can the people they care for.

Think there’s a problem? Here are some resources that include support groups and referrals to therapists and treatment centers:

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