Eating Disorders in Midlife

Eating disorders are often believed to be an adolescent disease, affecting only girls in their teen years and striking mostly white females in higher socioeconomic neighborhoods. In recent years, however, many other population groups are showing that they, too, suffer from eating disorders. Children are increasingly being diagnosed with eating disorders, and males of all ages are meeting criteria for eating disorders as well. Across all racial and ethnic lines, eating disorders are appearing at various stages of life. One group that is showing a greater number of admissions for eating disorders is women who are midlife or older. Some of the women are relapsing from earlier problems with eating disorders, but a significant number are struggling with an eating disorder that has surfaced well into adulthood.

One of the first signs of anorexia that may be noted by a doctor and lead to a screening for an eating disorder is the absence of a period for three or more months. When an older woman begins to miss periods, however, it may be misdiagnosed as the woman simply entering the early stages of menopause. In addition, because it can be difficult to keep weight at a reasonable level as women age, a thin body is a reason for congratulations, not suspicion.

Older women may experience symptoms of an eating disorder following a milestone in their lives. A child leaving for college, the death of a parent or even divorce can be a time when feelings about food and body image begin to be distorted. Women may find that they have slipped into dangerous weight control behaviors after making a decision to lead a healthier lifestyle.

Dr. Cynthia M. Bulik, director of the Eating Disorders Program at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, says that the program was originally designed with adolescents in mind, they have seen a growth of older patients in the last decade. Approximately half of the patients at the treatment program are adults.

The problem stems from women at all ages feeling pressured to look a certain way. The societal expectation to be thin does not fade as women enter midlife and beyond. Even women in their 50s and 60s are feeling compelled to participate in extreme weight control behaviors.

For decades, programs have sought to train parents to watch for signs that their adolescent children are struggling with an eating disorder. Family members must also be aware that their spouse or even their parents may be hiding a problem with extreme weight control measures.

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