Eating disorders do not discriminate; they affect people of all ages, ethnicities, abilities, sizes, socioeconomic backgrounds and gender identities. The idea that eating disorders only affect thin, white, affluent, teenage girls is a common misconception often perpetuated by the media. This sends a dangerous message because people who do not fit this stereotype often don’t seek out the support they deserve out of fear they won’t be taken seriously or they don’t realize it’s a problem they can be affected by.
The onset of anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder or any other eating disorder can occur at any time in a person’s life. People develop eating disorders in their twenties, thirties, forties, and beyond. Treatment centers around the world report increasing numbers of middle-aged clients seeking treatment. Because not all people who suffer from eating disorders seek treatment, it is fair to assume there is an even larger number of people mid-life who do not seek treatment.
As reported by the National Eating Disorder Association, The International Journal of Eating Disorders published an online survey of over 1,900 women, called Gender and Body Image Study (GABI) which found that 13 percent of women over the age of 50 reported behaviors that would be considered symptomatic of an eating disorder. Seventy percent of women surveyed reported that they had, at some point in the five years preceding the study, attempted to lose weight by dieting.
Eating disorders are unique to each individual and develop in a variety of ways. Some people who develop eating disorders later in life report having had no experience with disordered eating or problematic dieting prior to the onset of the eating disorder. Others report having problems related to food and eating as well as body image issues throughout their lives. There is no typical pattern of dietary experience leading to an eating disorder later in life, meaning that any person could be affected at any time, regardless of what their relationship with food has been like before.
Even though the individual factors contributing to the development of an eating disorder may vary, no matter what the age of onset, an eating disorder is always a result of complex interactions between environmental and biological elements. When a person has a genetic predisposition to an eating disorder, the illness can emerge at any stage of life.
Research shows that eating disorders likely have a biological basis. However, environmental factors and influences also play a role in the onset of an eating disorder. Environmental influences are usually stress, dietary changes, a reduction in food intake, or weight change. Even if weight change is not intentional and is a by-product of stress, illness, or hormonal changes, in some individuals this can contribute to the development of an eating disorder.
There are a number of environmental stressors that are unique to older adults, the most prominent of which are marital stress or divorce, and becoming an “empty nester” after children leave the home. Other common environmental stressors include family problems, financial stress, changes in support systems, dating experiences, pressure to appear youthful and thin, illness, changes in career, physical limitations, and death of a loved one. All of these life circumstances have the potential to evoke stress and spark the development of an eating disorder in a person who is genetically predisposed to having one.
Because our culture values the ‘thin ideal’, changes to one’s body weight or shape tend to come with more attention or comments made from others. Eating disorder behaviors can be reinforced when others give compliments related to weight loss, make assumptions about improved health as a result of weight loss, or generally experiencing an increase in positive interactions from others. This response can reinforce weight loss and dieting attempts, which can make a person more vulnerable to developing an eating disorder.
The onset of another physical or psychological disorder can also cause weight change and disordered eating. If left untreated this disruption can develop into a clinical eating disorder. Depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders can emerge in later life and often impact food intake.
Pressure on Older Woman
Eating disorders affect both men and women, however, the response of society to the process of aging puts women in a place of increased vulnerability. As men age, they are often considered to become more distinguished. Women however, are not treated as respectfully by society as they age. Instead, they are often referred to as “wrinkly” or in need of commercial beauty products or cosmetic treatments in order to remain attractive. This pressure can result in a woman feeling an increased dissatisfaction with the way she looks, which in turn, could initiate dieting behavior and increased preoccupation with food and her body.
If you or someone you know is struggling with eating and body image issues, it’s important to get support with a qualified team of professionals who specialize in eating disorders. This usually includes a licensed therapist, registered dietitian, and your primary care physician. Older adults sometimes find it hard to reach out and ask for help, because of misleading stereotypes about what eating disorders look like, cultural attitudes about mental health treatment, or thinking the problem isn’t “bad enough”. The fact is, eating disorders can affect anyone at any time in their lives; age has nothing to do with it. Eating disorder recovery is possible and there is help available. There are also support groups which operate specifically to give assistance and help to older individuals who are suffering from eating disorders.
Written by Tabitha Farrar and Dr. Lauren Muhlheim
Midlife Eating Disorders by Cynthia Bulik