Anna, age 58, began binging and purging three years ago, soon after her youngest son left for college.
The only thing that kept Marsha, age 52, feeling young, was knowing she could fit into her daughter’s skinny jeans–so she ate only one meal a day, five days a week, to maintain her weight at “skinny jean level.”
In spite of what many people think, Anorexia, binge eating, and Bulimia do not only strike teens and women in their 20s. Eating disorders know no boundaries when it comes to age. According to Dr. David B. Herzog, director of The Harris Center, an eating disorder clinic at Massachusetts General Hospital, eating disorders are affecting girls as young as seven, and women as old as 70.
A recent study in the International Journal of Eating Disorders shows 13% of women ages 50 and older struggle with the problem. Children leaving home, aging parents, and the general midlife trials and tribulations such as menopause and an ever-changing body can serve as triggers to midlife eating disorders. The added pressures of coming to grips with their own aging and the omnipresent reminders from TV, magazines, and movies that say we must look perfect and skinny and be in control no matter what, weigh heavily (excuse the pun) on our shoulders and in many instances are encouraging women to go to extremes in order to look young and attractive. It’ s easy to see how in that equation, food can often be seen as the problem and controlling food and diet can be seen as the problem solver.
While both young and old bodies suffer the consequences from repeatedly engaging in bingeing and purging, eating disorders exact greater punishments on women who may already be physically declining because of aging. Older women with eating disorders are often at higher risk for osteoporosis, gastrointestinal ailments, heart and dental problems. “These disorders wreak such havoc on younger bodies, and older bodies are less resilient,” says Cynthia Bulik, director of the University of North Carolina Eating Disorders Program.
In addition to the physical impact these disorders have on women in midlife, they also take their toll psychologically. Until now there really wasn’t anywhere older women dealing with these issues could go to get help. Facilities such as The Renfrew Center, in Philadelphia, have begun to offer safe havens where women can be with their peers and feel free to express themselves, deal with, and ultimately conquer their problems without having to face feelings of guilt and embarrassment.
Bulik was quoted as saying that health care workers should keep eating disorders on your radar screen, no matter what the age of the patient. “Just because someone is over 50 doesn’t mean they’re not at risk.” While the study in the Journal revealed somewhat of a great secret epidemic that has long been existing, the very revealing look into the minds of over-50 women can be regarded as a major breakthrough. Researchers and clinicians now have ample reason to thoroughly investigate women’s attitudes about their bodies and find appropriate methods, both medical and psychological, to help them lose weight, get healthy, and stay healthy.
Experts say that diagnosis should be left up to the professionals, but there are still some warning signs to look for regarding eating disorders:
- Drastic change in eating habits
- An obsession with body image―size, weight, and shape. (Both of self and that of others.)
- Evidence of using laxatives, diuretics, and enemas.
- Exercising compulsively and abnormally for long periods of time.
- Noticeable and unexplainable dry skin, and weight and hair loss.