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Empty Plates for “Empty Nesters”

Eating Disorders Among Older Women

image Eating disorders have typically been seen as a group of conditions affecting adolescent girls. After all, of the nearly 24 million Americans with some type of eating disorder, nearly all are between the ages of 12 and 25. However, eating disorders are being detected among older women.

Throughout the community—in doctors’ offices, gyms, etc—it is becoming more noticeable that some older women are going to extremes to control their eating behaviors and weight. Evidence from observational studies have identified this trend.

Characteristics of Eating Disorders

The types of eating disorders seen among older women appear to be similar to those seen in younger women— anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.

Although more research is needed to fully explore this area, all of these eating disorders, or a combination of the three, appear to be increasingly common among older woman—especially those in midlife years. In general, women of all ages typically describe a feeling of being “out of control” when relaying their thoughts and feelings on issues of food and weight.

Potential Reasons for the Trend

This trend in eating disorders among older women is likely the result of a variety of factors. However, it is difficult to accurately obtain statistics relating to eating disorders, in part because many women have been secretive about these disorders. It is difficult to determine whether there are actually more women experiencing eating disorders in recent years, or if there is less secrecy and more women who are now seeking help for the disorders. The following scenarios are possible explanations for the increase in prevalence:

Long-lasting Generational Effects

There is evidence that genetics plays a role in eating disorders. Currently, DNA studies are being done to identify specific gene sequences that cause these disorders. Environmental triggers are also present, which means habits and behaviors can be passed down through generations. Women with histories of eating disorders often treat their children differently than women without eating disorders. They tend to focus on their children's weight, particularly with their daughters. This may contribute to changes in their children's eating habits.

Seeking Help

Eating disorders at any age can have devastating health and psychosocial consequences on an individual. In addition, while eating disorders are potentially life threatening to the women who have them, if left untreated, they also have the potential to adversely affect the children of women with eating disorders. Therefore, seeking help from a qualified counselor, doctor, or eating disorder clinic, has the potential to benefit both individuals and families affected by eating disorders.

RESOURCES:

National Eating Disorders Association
http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org

National Institute of Mental Health
http://www.nimh.nih.gov

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

National Eating Disorder Information Centre
http://www.nedic.ca

Women's Health Matters
http://www.womenshealthmatters.ca

REFERENCES:

Ackard DM, Richter S. Eating disorder treatment among women forty and older: Increases in prevalence over time and comparisons to young adult patients. J Psychosom Res. 2013;74(2):175-178.

Anorexia nervosa. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated May 11, 2015. Accessed May 20, 2015.

Bulimia nervosa. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated March 18, 2015. Accessed May 20, 2015.

Eating disorder statistics. National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders website. Available at: http://www.anad.org/get-information/about-eating-disorders/eating-disorders-statistics. Accessed May 20, 2015.

General information. National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders website. Available at: http://www.anad.org/get-information/about-eating-disorders/general-information. Accessed May 20, 2015.

Major, E. Children and eating disorders: A review of the literature. Vanderbilt University Psychology Department website. Available at: http://www.vanderbilt.edu/AnS/psychology/health_psychology/childrenandED.html. Accessed May 20, 2015.

Scholtz S, Hill LS, Lacey H. Eating disorders in older women: Does late onset anorexia nervosa exist? Int J Eat Disord. 2010;43(5):393-397.

Steinhausen HC. The outcome of anorexia nervosa in the 20th century. Am J Psychiatry. 2002;159(8):1284-1293.

Trace SE, Baker JH, Penas-Lledo E, Bulik CM. The genetics of eating disorders. Annu Rev Clin Psychol. 2013;9:589-620.

Wiseman CV, Sunday SR, Klapper F, Harris WA, Halmi KA. Changing patterns of hospitalization in eating disorder patients. Int J of Eating Disorders. 2001;30(1):69-74.

Last reviewed May 2015 by Michael Woods, MD  Last Updated: 5/20/2015