If you think that there are more commercials today devoted to anti-age spots, ant-wrinkle creams, physical fitness and low-fat food, you may be right. While looking and feeling young may be a great thing, experts are telling us that our cultural fixation on agelessness is coming at a price. More and more evidence is coming to light that folks in their fifth, sixth, seventh and even eighth decade of life are struggling with an eating disorder.
One study in the U.K. found that 90 percent of women feel anxious about how they look. Feeling self-conscious about one’s appearance is not always a sign of an eating disorder, but it can be a tell-tale marker on the road to getting there. What doctors and mental health professionals are learning is that far from being a young person’s illness, eating disorders can afflict a person at any age.
In fact, when elderly people in Great Britain were asked about how important their appearance was to them, they ranked it right up alongside concerns about health and well-being. Today’s senior citizens are less accepting of wrinkles, sagging and the bent of aging. Fewer and fewer are okay with looking as old as their actual years. Societal preoccupation with youth and loveliness has managed to creep down to the very young (sometimes as young as 5 years) and upward to the very old (even into their 80s). One British psychologist has referred to this as an epidemic and a societal contagion.
Today more elderly people are showing signs of low self-worth and even more serious conditions like body dysmorphic disorder than ever before. Older people are not only buying into the unrealistic ideal embraced by a youth-fixated culture, they are falling prey to eating disorders in their effort to achieve it.
While a significant portion of eating disorders among the elderly may be accounted for as the relapse/remitting pattern of a disorder formed in younger years, there are still a notable number of eating disorders that form for the first time in later years. Many of them are not discovered until a person is hospitalized for some reason.
About one-half of the time, a precipitating event triggered the eating disorder. It may have been widowhood, illness or even family problems. The majority of cases of eating disorders among the elderly probably go undiagnosed since few people are expecting that to be the explanation when grandma or grandpa starts losing weight or becomes obsessed with exercise and diet.
It’s true that youth is fleeting, but somehow we are refusing to accept that beauty is also passing. Just when their age should be making them a source of wisdom and guidance, now many of our elderly are becoming riddled with the same anxieties and identity battles that were once thought to be the bane of youth.