Empty Plates for “Empty Nesters”
Eating Disorders Among Older Women
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, 95% 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. The New York Times and similar sources have reported anecdotal evidence from psychiatrists in private practice who have identified this trend among their patients.
Characteristics of Eating Disorders
- Anorexia nervosa is an illness that leads persons to deprive themselves of food so that they experience a state of starvation and dramatic weight loss.
- People with bulimia nervosa often have urges to eat extreme amounts of food and then immediately engage in behaviors (eg, vomiting, using laxatives, excessive exercise) to rid themselves of the excess food they have consumed. People with bulimia nervosa may appear overweight or have a normal weight.
- Binge-eating disorder is usually characterized by bingeing, or excessive intakes of food without purging, which usually leads to excessive weight gain.
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 are now seeking help for the disorders. The following scenarios are possible explanations for the increase in prevalence:
- Almost half of adolescents with anorexia have a full recovery over time, but more than 30% have only a partial recovery, and 20% have no substantial improvement in their condition. Therefore, eating disorders may continue in some people, as they get older.
- In addition, some middle-aged women may have the proverbial “mid-life crisis,” during which they exhibit signs of eating disorders as a result of life’s pressures, such as peer and societal pressure to be thin and young, fear of sexuality (especially relating to aging issues and spouse’s interest), and family conflicts. In this scenario, these women may have previously engaged in healthful behaviors, but now are exhibiting signs of disordered eating and behaviors relating to weight.
- Finally, some women may be engaging in more healthful behaviors, such as exercise, than they had previously. But life pressures may build, pushing them to extremes as they fit in several hours of exercise per day—at which point this becomes an unhealthful behavior. Subsequently, it develops into a disordered behavior relating to weight. Some have referred to this behavior as “gym bulimia.”
Long-lasting Generational Effects
Eating disorders at any age can have devastating health and psychosocial consequences. But perhaps what is most alarming is the fact that older women with eating disorders may be passing on their disordered behaviors to their children. Eating disorders seem to run in families, as do most psychiatric disorders. The attitudes and behaviors of mothers with eating disorders are likely to be passed on to children, particularly daughters. According to one study, mothers who are overly concerned about their daughters' weight may put their daughters at increased risk of developing an eating disorder.
While eating disorders are typically detected in adolescents, they are not only a problem for younger women. Women of all ages may be affected by one eating disorder or a combination of disordered behaviors relating to weight. 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 has the potential to benefit both individuals and families affected by eating disorders.
National Eating Disorders Association
National Institute of Mental Health
National Eating Disorder Information Centre
Women's Health Matters
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Last reviewed May 2011 by Brian Randall, MD
Last updated Updated: 5/12/2011
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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