More Older Women Seeking Help for Eating Disorders

By May Wilkerson 02/16/16

New research suggests that preoccupation with body weight and shape doesn't naturally go away as women age. 

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More Older Women Seeking Help for Eating Disorders
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People tend to associate eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia with teenage girls. But new research shows that eating disorders can also set in later in life, and the number of older adults seeking help for eating disorders appears to be on the rise.

Doctors already know to keep an eye out for eating disorders during puberty, a high-risk period during which there is a spike in the rate of girls developing eating disorders. But peri-menopause, the period of life preceding menopause, may be another high-risk period in a woman’s life, according to a new report in the journal Maturitas, by Cristin Runfola, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders, and Jessica Baker at UNC. “Physicians and the general public have had this long-term belief that midlife women are somehow immune to eating disorders, and that’s just not true,” said Baker.

In 2003, women aged 30 and above made up one-third of inpatient admissions at one specialized eating disorder treatment center, researchers reported. In the past decade, the Renfrew Center has reported a 42% increase in the number of women aged 35+ seeking treatment.

New research suggests that preoccupation with body weight and shape doesn’t necessarily disappear or even decrease with age. A 2012 study in the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that 70% of women aged 50 and older are attempting to lose weight, 60% say that their worries about weight and body image negatively impact their lives, and 13% showed symptoms of an eating disorder.

And in the past decade, more adults in middle age and older have begun seeking treatment for an eating disorder. For some, the problem began in their 40s or 50s, while others were suffering from a relapse of an eating disorder that first afflicted them as a teen or young adult, and others had been suffering from a chronic eating disorder since adolescence.

Eating disorders still remain, overall, less common in older adults than in teens, but the symptoms are the same and can be equally damaging to a person’s quality of life, says Ellen Fitzsimmons-Craft, a psychology postdoc at Washington University in St. Louis. And older adults are also much more likely to suffer from medical complications related to their eating disorder, such as osteoporosis, digestive and heart issues, and tooth loss. “It’s not surprising—for some women, these disorders have been going on for decades,” said Fitzsimmons-Craft. “And our bodies just get less resilient as we get older.”

The spike in eating disorders among teen girls may be related to an onset of sex hormones, which seem to “switch on” genetic risks for eating disorders. And another study found that, throughout a woman’s reproductive life, emotional eating and body dissatisfaction are impacted by monthly hormone swings, and are highest before and after a woman’s period.

Major hormone shifts also take place during peri-menopause, which may contribute to a boost in body image and weight-related issues among women ages 40-60. Though further research is needed, Runfola and Baker hypothesize that hormone shifts occurring at puberty and again at menopause may put women at a higher risk of disordered eating. 

“There’s pretty strong evidence that hormones play a role in causing and maintaining eating disorders,” said Runfola. The first step is to raise awareness about the problem among older women, and to help psychologists develop better treatments that address the specific needs of this population.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.