Anorexia Hits Older Women

A title to a news article caught my eye the other day.  It stated: Rise in Middle-aged Women with Eating Disorders.  Having known women with eating disorders while in my teens and early ’20’s, I wanted to learn more about the fact that it seemed that eating disorders were not just found in those years when women feel very self-conscious about what they look like: Their teen years and early ’20’s, but in older women as well.

…. a smattering of data from around the world suggests the behaviors associated with bulimia and anorexia may be more common in mid-life than previously believed.

The most recent evidence comes from a survey of 1,849 women age 50 and up, the results of which were published last week in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.

With our society’s focus on Thin being In, it may not be surprising that anorexia and bulimia would be found across the spectrum of age.  But according to these studies, stress is a key contributor.

Experts say that major transitions in the lives of middle-aged women across America – including failed marriages, job loss, children and financial difficulties – can rekindle eating disorders that begun years before or even bring them on for the first time, though this is a rarity.

Douglas Bunnell, vice president and director of out-patient clinical services at The Renfrew Center, told MSNBC: ‘It’s rare that an eating disorder shows up completely out of the blue in mid-life. The more common scenario is the resurgence of a life-long problem’

As to how prevalent eating disorders are among older women, that is a hard question to gauge because it is not a topic easily admitted by those caught in the cycle of eating and purging or starving themselves.

Despite the growing attention, experts say the problem is likely underreported, partly because adult women disguise behaviors such as purging, and partly because eating disorders typically aren’t on the radar screen of doctors who care for this age group.

“Eating disorders are still in the closet to a large extent, especially for adult women,” says Margo Maine, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in private practice in West Hartford, Connecticut, who specializes in treating the disorders. “Adult women have such shame about admitting it.”

Body image looms large in most women’s lives.  It may not be surprising that with the onset of menopause and the weight gain that is associated with that period of time, women start to feel less secure about how they project to the larger society.

According to Cynthia Bulik, Ph.D, Director of the eating disorder program at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill,

The changes associated with menopause are perfectly natural, but they aren’t always easy to reconcile with catchphrases like “30 is the new 50” or the day-to-day demands of modern life.

Many middle-aged women are juggling child rearing and work responsibilities, or caring for aging parents. That can leave little time for planning healthy meals or exercising, at a stage of life when the amount of exercise needed to maintain one’s weight — let alone drop a few pounds — goes up.

“As a culture, we live in a very, very stressful time, and for women this is even more so, because our roles have changed so dramatically,” says Maine, coauthor of “The Body Myth: Adult Women and the Pressure to be Perfect.

This is also a period of time when a divorce can be devastating and a woman in her ’50’s may not feel as good about the way she looks as she did in her ’20’s.  Her belief in finding a new mate may be eroded merely by her age.  Or the stress of losing her partner to death may undermine her sense of her place in life and, in turn, her sense of self-esteem.  It may be that the woman was never satisfied with the way she looked and wants to and always has wanted to just disappear.  Whatever may be the cause, eating disorders are still a problem.

The standard treatment for disordered eating typically includes psychotherapy, as well as counseling about nutrition and eating habits. Women need to be proactive about seeking care, Maine says, since doctors — and especially primary care physicians — often overlook problematic eating behaviors in older women.

And although it was totally acceptable among the wealthy class of Ancient Rome to purge one’s food after a major food binge,  we are not Ancient Rome and our lifestyles are nothing like that of Ancient Rome.  Maybe these are the warning signs to re-think how we choose to spend our time and what is acceptable as a lifestyle.

© Yvonne Behrens, M.Ed  2013