Eating disorders are not an often-discussed topic. Frequently, those who suffer from an eating disorder feel intense shame about their behavior which prevents them from talking about their struggles. For those who do not personally struggle with an eating disorder, we may feel uncomfortable about addressing our concerns with a friend who we see suffering from this illness. However, eating disorders are highly prevalent illnesses and can be deadly. Therefore, it is important for us to start talking more openly about them.
Historically, most people think that eating disorders only affect young, white, affluent women. That is not the case. Eating disorders do not discriminate. They can develop at any age and in any ethnic group. In fact, recent data suggests that 13% of women over the age of 50 have eating disorder symptoms. Surprising, right? That means that if you have 10 female friends, statistically, at least one of them (or you) is struggling with eating disorder symptoms.
What kinds of eating disorder symptoms are we talking about? Well, there are several recognized eating disorders – the most common being Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge Eating Disorder. Anorexia is when someone limits their food intake in order to lose weight and maintains an abnormally low weight. Bulimia involves eating and purging afterward. Ways of purging include vomiting, abuse of prescription stimulants, laxative, diuretics, or diet pills. Binge Eating Disorder is similar to Bulimia in that the person binge eats, but does not purge afterward.
When someone is struggling with symptoms of an eating disorder, they may not meet “clinical criteria” for the diagnosis (the symptoms are not severe enough to meet a clinical diagnosis), but they are still suffering with the symptoms. We call this “subclinical” (meaning the person does not meet criteria for an eating disorder diagnosis). Someone may suffer from eating disorder symptoms for years without getting diagnosed with an eating disorder and then, seemingly out of nowhere, the symptoms worsen, the disorder emerges, or their symptoms get to the point that they become unmanageable.
The development of a new eating disorder or the worsening of eating disorder symptoms can occur at any time during someone’s life, and any life changes can increase a person’s vulnerability. Examples of life changes that may trigger eating disorder symptoms include: raising children, caring for aging parents, making career decisions, ending relationships, menopause, and kids going off to college – just to name a few. Additionally, as women in midlife experience weight gain that often accompanies aging and menopause, they may be more likely to use extreme dieting or eating disorder behaviors to compensate.
The symptoms of eating disorders do not differ much between women who develop the disorder later in life as compared to younger women. However, treatment may place more of a focus on one’s partner and/or children (if age appropriate) as support systems, rather than on parents, who are often included for younger women. Furthermore, certain health concerns are higher in older women with eating disorders. A woman’s body become less resilient over time, so the medical complications of eating disorders including cardiac concerns, gastrointestinal distress, and bone loss are therefore greater.
Despite one’s hesitation to discuss or seek treatment for an eating disorder, treatment is imperative. At Eating Recovery Center, we have diagnosed and treated many women over the age of 50. Thankfully, eating disorders are highly treatable. We encourage any woman experiencing unhealthy eating patterns or anyone who knows someone suffering to seek additional help. If you notice any of these symptoms in yourself or others, open a dialogue and start talking about the struggles. You are not alone and there is support for you. Professional help may be necessary and ERC is here to help. Please contact us at (713) 714-3409, or visit www.eatingrecovery.com to speak with a Master’s-level eating disorder clinician. All information shared will be held confidential. We want to help you stop suffering from your illness and get back to living a healthy meaningful life.