Women over 40 get eating disorders too; they just don't get treated very much

Gull_-_Anorexia_Miss_A Do you ever outgrow eating disorders?  Do seniors and people later in life even develop them?

The answer is yes - but a lot of people don’t believe it.  Despite research and a mountain of anecdotal evidence suggesting that women over 40 are just as interested in their body images as younger women, plenty of people assume no older woman can develop an eating disorder. 

A research study looked at 48 published studies of eating disorders in people over the age of 50. They found that 88% of the cases were female, 81% had anorexia nervosa, and 10% had bulimia nervosa.

The New York Times recently featured an woman who suffered from anorexia until her 40s.  She’s recovered and at the 58 she is telling her story of healing. It's a stark narrative that is present in her story, that despite having all of the symptoms no one said anything to her. She was praised for her focus on exercise and eating “right.” Friends and family thought she looked great. They believed that she was successful, when in reality she was in pain.

Her story is supported by a small research study published in 2010 that looked at 32 patients over the age of 50 that were being treated at a national eating disorder clinic. The found that many of the patients had a history of eating disorders and that at the time of treatment they were in relapse.

For women both old and young, the signs of anorexia are still the same:

Extreme weight loss, thin appearance, fatigue, insomnia, dizziness or fainting, bluish discoloration of the fingers, brittle nails, thinning hair, soft, downy hair covering the body, absence of menstruation, constipation, dry skin, intolerance of cold, irregular heart rhythms, low blood pressure, dehydration, osteoporosis, swelling of arms or legs

But there are physical reasons, as well as psychological, why people attribute some of the signs of anorexia to old age:   

  • Loss of hair – mistaken for age related hair loss
  • Absence of menstruation – mistaken for early menopause
  • Extreme weight loss – may be mistaken for diets and exercise

It’s easy for body image issues to turn into eating disorders: the social norms are set around the skinny and taunt image of a young woman. The narrative around health is youth: thin, flat abs and perfect skin. For some women, their power lies in their beauty and youthful body. The weight gain after menopause is one reason that some older women would seek the empowering feeling of successful dieting and exercise. But, the problem for some that power and control can turn into compulsion.

Body image may not be the only reason for the onset of an eating disorder; another is in response to a major life event that is painfully hard to deal with. The loss of a loved one or the loss of life as it used to be can a shocking change. Eating disorders are a way of control and power over the things in life that are in some ways out of our hands.

A study published in the European Eating Disorders Review looked at the link between existential anxiety and anorexia. They found that there was a link between those who with symptoms of anorexia had increased levels of existential anxiety.  Dr. Linda Riebel offers that therapists in the existential-humanistic tradition would see this individual disowning their bodies and their emotions, thus avoiding opportunities for personal choice towards self-actualization. The Existential view is that eating disorder are linked to existential anxiety, or having to deal with the givens of life on earth – living, dying, choice, responsibility, meaning, and meaninglessness for example.

Food is the bridge between life and death for them. Choice and responsibility is still present but has been lost to compulsion. Controlling weight may give a sense of meaning and power to some but is this really meaning in life? That’s a question that doesn’t go away with old age.

-- Makenna Berry

Posted at 05:16 AM in

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This is just an incredible piece of work thank you for the time you put into the pohots and the stories of 65+ people struggling with an incredibly difficult illness. I have two sisters who struggled with ED for years; one still suffers from low self-esteem and body image. I believe this had much to do with her husband leaving her. I also had a friend/business partner who struggled with a deep affliction of anorexia and alcoholism we finally had to part ways when I couldn't deal with the incredible (self-imposed) feeling of needing to save or be responsible for her well-being. At several points during our partnership, she almost died and I couldn't handle the daily stress of wondering if she would show up for work or if I'd have to visit her in the hospital that morning. She is currently sober and working hard to stay that way. My guess, based on her appearance, is she is still a practicing anorexic. I try to encourage her recovery through cards and short phone conversations, but I continue to keep my heart at a distance because it is too painful otherwise. The strain that various forms of this illness has put upon me and other family members has cut deep into our relationships, own self-worth, etc. By nature, I am a thick-skinned soul, so it took me years to understand the effects that careless words can have on people and I have become much more careful with my own word choices when dealing with women friends, girls in the neighborhood, my own child. I find that, because of my many experiences with ED victims, I tend to be a little less in control of my own habits not faithful to an exercise regime, usually 5 lbs or so over my ideal weight, always having that extra glass of wine or having one more bite of cake almost as a reassurance that I will not fall into the same trap as my sisters and friends. One of your photography subjects talked about turning off the tv, cancelling magazine subscriptions, etc. What a smart, smart young woman! I think she cut right to the core of one of society's main negative self-image influences and I was really happy to read that she is now so much healthier since she shut out that part of our culture. My prayers and hopes go out to all of your subjects and to the many, many people out there who struggle with eating disorders. Posted by Gelson (not verified) | 07/17/2012 @ 10:28 PM

I guess we tend to only think of young women when we think of <a href="">binge eating disorders</a>

Posted by Elizabeth Miller (not verified) | 09/11/2012 @ 02:01 PM