Many people have the perception that eating disorders are for young, white adolescents. In recent years, however, experts have begun to understand the wide scope of eating disorders and the patients that are affected by them. Studies are beginning to provide evidence that both genders, all races and ethnicities and all ages are represented in eating disorder treatment.
While the adolescent years are a common age for eating disorders to develop, eating disorder treatment centers are recording more and more women in their 40s, 50s and 60s seeking help for symptoms associated with anorexia or bulimia nervosa.
On the New York Times site, one health blogger talks about the increased rates of older women getting help for eating disorders. In many cases, older women are seeing eating disorders resurface that originally developed earlier, during adolescence, but there is still a significant number who report symptoms appearing for the first time in middle age.
In the blog, Cynthia M. Bulik, of the Eating Disorders Program at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, says that their program, while originally tailored to assist younger women, is increasingly seeing middle age women enroll. In fact, half of the patients have been adults in recent years.
Bulik explains that some of the same problems that plague adolescents in the area of body image satisfaction are still challenging at later stages of life. The perceived ideal of being thin and perfect continues to throw women off track from healthy eating habits even as they age into their 50s and 60s. Bulik says that even women older than that struggle with extreme control over their eating and exercise habits.
For many women with eating disorders, a major life change or trauma can trigger the symptoms. For younger women, the trigger could be starting college and being away from home for an extended period for the first time. For older women, the trigger could be the death of a parent or a child leaving home, or going through a divorce.
One reason that many older women and their disordered eating behaviors escape notice is that they are very adept at covering up their habits. In addition, with family meals and other social constraints removed, many eat alone and are able to conceal the problem for extended lengths of time.
There are other reasons that older women can hide their disorders, such as a different level of awareness among doctors. Many doctors know to watch for amenorrhea in adolescent females as a sign of eating disorders, but it can be easily explained as a symptom of menopause in older women who exhibits this sign of an eating disorder problem.