Eating disorders have typically been seen as a group of conditions affecting adolescent girls. After all, of the nearly 24 million Americans with some type of eating disorder, nearly all are between the ages of 12 and 25. However, eating disorders are being detected among older women.
Throughout the community—in doctors’ offices, gyms, etc—it is becoming more noticeable that some older women are going to extremes to control their eating behaviors and weight. Evidence from observational studies have identified this trend.
The types of eating disorders seen among older women appear to be similar to those seen in younger women—
bulimia nervosa, and
binge eating disorder.
- Anorexia nervosa is an illness that leads persons to deprive themselves of food so that they experience a state of starvation and dramatic weight loss.
- People with bulimia nervosa often have urges to eat extreme amounts of food and then immediately engage in behaviors, such as vomiting, using laxatives, or excessive exercise to rid themselves of the excess food they have consumed. People with bulimia nervosa may appear overweight or have a normal weight.
- Binge-eating disorder is usually characterized by bingeing, or excessive intakes of food without purging, which usually leads to excessive weight gain.
Although more research is needed to fully explore this area, all of these eating disorders, or a combination of the three, appear to be increasingly common among older woman—especially those in midlife years. In general, women of all ages typically describe a feeling of being “out of control” when relaying their thoughts and feelings on issues of food and weight.
This trend in eating disorders among older women is likely the result of a variety of factors. However, it is difficult to accurately obtain statistics relating to eating disorders, in part because many women have been secretive about these disorders. It is difficult to determine whether there are actually more women experiencing eating disorders in recent years, or if there is less secrecy and more women who are now seeking help for the disorders. The following scenarios are possible explanations for the increase in prevalence:
- Almost half of adolescents with anorexia have a full recovery over time, but more than one third have only a partial recovery, and less than a quarter have no substantial improvement in their condition. Therefore, eating disorders may continue in some people, as they get older.
- In addition, some middle-aged women may have the proverbial mid-life crisis, during which they exhibit signs of eating disorders as a result of life’s pressures, such as peer and societal pressure to be thin and young, fear of sexuality (especially relating to aging issues and spouse’s interest), and family conflicts. In this scenario, these women may have previously engaged in healthful behaviors, but now are exhibiting signs of disordered eating and behaviors relating to weight.
- Finally, some women may be engaging in more healthful behaviors, such as exercise, than they had previously. But life pressures may build, pushing them to extremes as they fit in several hours of exercise per day—at which point this becomes an unhealthful behavior. Subsequently, it develops into a disordered behavior relating to weight. Some have referred to this behavior as gym bulimia.
There is evidence that genetics plays a role in eating disorders. Currently, DNA studies are being done to identify specific gene sequences that cause these disorders. Environmental triggers are also present, which means habits and behaviors can be passed down through generations. Women with histories of eating disorders often treat their children differently than women without eating disorders. They tend to focus on their children's weight, particularly with their daughters. This may contribute to changes in their children's eating habits.
Eating disorders at any age can have devastating health and psychosocial consequences on an individual. In addition, while eating disorders are potentially life threatening to the women who have them, if left untreated, they also have the potential to adversely affect the children of women with eating disorders. Therefore, seeking help from a qualified counselor, doctor, or eating disorder clinic, has the potential to benefit both individuals and families affected by eating disorders.
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Last reviewed September 2013 by Michael Woods, MD
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