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Eating Disorders In Older Women - By Chris Gearing

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Eating disorders affect up to 70 million people worldwide with 24 million Americans suffering from this disorder according to the National Institute of Health. While current studies indicate that 95% of eating disorders affect girls between the ages of 11 and 25, new research reports that record numbers of older women are now affected by eating disorders.

So, why would an older woman develop an eating disorder at this time of life?

There are four principle reasons that women develop a midlife eating disorder:

Control and Eating Disorders: Control is the common denominator between all eating disorders. A current trauma or dramatic change in her life that makes her feel vulnerable and helpless can precipitate an eating disorder. Husbands leave, parents die and friends move away leaving her without the support system she has known for years. An eating disorder can become a comfortable, familiar “friend” during these dark times. Micromanaging your food intake either through restricting food or binging with food can leave you flush with a momentary exhilaration in an anxious life.

Social Pressure: Women are subjected to continued pressure to look young and being super thin is associated with being young. The $40 billion dollar diet industry is all too willing to help her strive for the ideal body type found in only 5% of American females. Most eating disorders begin with body dissatisfaction and shedding pounds gains her enormous social approval.

Undiagnosed Depression or Anxiety: Depressive and anxiety disorders commonly co occur with eating disorders. Eating disorders are cruel masters and the constant striving for perfection can wear any woman out. If binging is the disorder of choice, the extra weight causes increased self-loathing and depression.

Previous Eating Disorder Returning: Eating disorders are complex, chronic mental health illnesses that can lie dormant during the childrearing years to return at midlife when there are fewer distractions and less applause.

Why are these disorders so difficult to detect in older women?

We associate eating disorders with a young girl’s struggle. By midlife, most people think you should be over those vain concerns about your body. But tragically, highly negative beliefs about your body never leave most women. We develop a self loathing toward our bodies early in life (78% of 17 year olds despise their bodies according to one study), we never consider if we are logical or rational in our self appraisal and we reinforce our negative self appraisal constantly by comparing ourselves to all the celebrities that have obvious eating disorders!

Most midlife women tend to escape notice from medical professionals since we are so adaptive in so many other areas of our lives. We often do not realize that we even have a problem. In addition, our friends and colleagues praise us when we are razor thin. No one ever stops to ask if all that exercising, food restriction or binging are really healthy for us.

Do the same eating disorders affect both young and older women and what are the signs?

Both age groups seem to develop similar disorders. However, the older woman may evolve quicker to the binge eating disorder than her younger peer. But there are important facts to keep in mind about eating disorders in any age category:

Deadly Disorders: Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Twenty percent of people suffering from anorexia will prematurely die from complications related to their eating disorder. These disorders can be deadly since the malnourishment strikes at the very metabolic and cardiac systems that are foundational for good health.

Three Distinct Disorders:

Anorexia Nervosa: No one sets out to develop an eating disorder. We “back into them” usually in response to a growing dislike for our bodies. This disorder usually begins at age 17 just as she is headed out into the world. Symptoms include a relentless pursuit of being thin, obsession with being perfect, an obsessive fear of gaining any weight and a denial of emaciation.

Bulimia Nervosa: The woman engages in binge eating and then inappropriate methods of preventing weight gain including purging or excessive exercising.

Symptoms Include:

  • Rituals built around eating large amounts of food within a 2 hour period
  • Feels out of control with the eating.

Binge Eating Disorder affects about 3 percent of Americans. Some experts believe that the disorder is rising faster than anorexia and bulimia. Women who binge hide their disorder and ask for help much later in life.

What should we do if we are worried about a woman we love?

  • Educate yourself about eating disorders first and acknowledge that they are dangerous. Remember that these disorders gradually build and are much easier to treat the earlier they are diagnosed.
  • Approach her with compassion and support when you express how concerned you are for her. Lead with empathy before you give advice.
  • Remind her of her lifetime of accomplishments—the children she has reared, the career she has built and tell her that this is a surmountable challenge.
  • Encourage her to get a professional evaluation with a psychologist specializing in eating disorders.

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