Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia are serious mental health conditions that can damage health or even result in death. For many years the problem seemed to mainly afflict teenage girls and young women. It was thought that the conditions were rooted in histories where the sufferer had experienced a frightening loss of control and subconsciously saw radical food deprivation as a means of exerting control. What is to think then when confronted with the news that these eating disorders are increasingly turning up in the lives of middle-aged, middle-income women
The self-induced starvation of anorexia and the binge/purge cycle of the bulimic both take a toll on the human body. These disorders damage the heart and could lead to heart attack. They deplete the brain’s natural storehouse of fat which can result in lowered neurological or cognitive function. They rob the bones of necessary nutrients and can lead to osteoporosis. Bulimics experience ravages to the tissues of the throat and mouth. The caloric and nutrient deprivations can cause organ failure and even death.
Experts on the subject tell us that there are somewhere between one and three million women living with an eating disorder today in America. Of those, ten percent are now women over the age of 40 years. This is remarkable given that the age demographic for the illness has long trended almost exclusively among the young. The newness of the problem among older women is reflected in research which shows a 42 percent rise in this group between 2001 and 2010. What is driving these middle-aged women to such drastic behaviors
Those who work with patients who have eating disorders say that midlife cases come from one of three scenarios. First, the woman may have had the disorder since her youth, but has managed to keep it hidden. Second, the woman may have suffered with an eating disorder in her youth, overcome the disorder and now is experiencing a relapse in her later years. Thirdly, though considered to be far less likely, the woman may be experiencing a new-onset of the eating disorder at a later age than usual.
The relapse or onset of an eating disorder at the midlife point could have any number of triggers. Women facing the bodily realities of aging may panic and attempt to stop the process through disordered eating. Women in their 40s and 50s are in a period of significant personal losses. For too many women, these years see the end of a marriage. This is the age when women start to lose their parents through death. And, though quite natural, it is also the time when children spread their wings and take off on their own. Suddenly, it seems, mother is not needed as she once was.
Whether these women are reacting to such midlife stresses with unhealthy eating or whether they are seeking to meet the unspoken cultural standard of limitless youth and beauty is not clear. Either way, it seems time to resurrect an appreciation for women who face loss with courage and bodily declines with grace.