Older women suffer from eating disorders, too
By Janice Lloyd
Woman Feeling Unwell
A first-of-a-kind study looking at older women finds damaging eating disorders are common — and 62 percent of those surveyed say their weight or shape has a negative impact on their lives.
Historically, eating disorder research has focused on teens and young women, but the new study in the International Journal of Eating Disorders shows 13 percent of women ages 50 and older struggle with the problem — some for the first time in their lives. Eating disorders include purging, binge eating, excessive dieting and excessive exercising.
The researchers surveyed 1,849 women online nationwide in an attempt to find out how older women feel about their bodies and to estimate the prevalence of eating disorders.
“Part of my goal is to make this an issue all doctors need to be aware of regardless of a women’s age,” says lead author Cindy Bulik, director of the eating disorders program at the University of North Carolina. “Many think eating disorders end at age 25.”
The average age of the current study participant was 59. The survey consisted of questions on body image, aging, eating, and weight-loss attitudes and behaviors.
Among the findings showing how weight issues can impact life negatively: A whopping 79 percent said their weight or shape affected their self-perception, 41 percent checked their body daily, and 36 percent spent at least half of their time in the last five years dieting. These behaviors and attitudes put women at higher risk for “full-blown eating disorders,” the authors write. In addition, 13.3 percent reported having symptoms of eating disorders.
One misguided “solution” is purging — eliminating food through vomiting or other means. Among all participants, 8 percent reported purging within the past five years.
“The purging number screams out desperation in my mind,” says Bulik. “Even after age 50, they’re desperately trying to control their weight. What really surprised me is that even in the 75-84 age group, they were still endorsing purging.”
Women used a variety of unhealthy methods to drop pounds, including diet pills (7.5 percent), excessive exercise (7 percent), diuretics (2.5 percent), laxatives (2 percent) and vomiting (1 percent).
Major life changes could be responsible for late-onset problems, says Bulik, author of The Woman in the Mirror: How to Stop Confusing What You Look Like With Who You Are. While some study participants acknowledged having eating disorders when they were younger, the problems did not develop in others until they got older.
“We ask the question, what are the triggers to mid- and late-life eating disorders?” says Bulik. “They’re talking about divorce, loss, children leaving home, children coming home. Food can be seen as a way to regulate mood during these times.”
The most common current symptom was binge eating (3.5 percent), a figure that is the same in younger people, Bulik says. But on top of making you feel badly about yourself, binge eating causes swings in blood pressure and glucose levels and can lead to obesity.
“There is plenty of help out there, but it can be more challenging for some of the older patients to come forward because they might have a stereotype that it’s younger people who are affected,” says William Walters, the help line manager for the National Eating Disorders Association.
Bulik says there’s a stage of “enlightenment” some women reach.
“They’re not concerned about how they look in the mirror and they get past that number on the scale,” she says. “They are concerned with healthy eating, getting enough exercise and being happy. We need to get more women headed in that direction.”
Gannett News Service