Middle Aged Eating Disorders

Middle Aged Eating Disorders

We take a look at the seemingly new phenomenon of middle-aged eating disorders, and why this debilitating illness is affecting more and more women in their 40s, 50s and 60s.

Surrounded by images of stick-thin and toned female celebrities, middle-aged women are exposed to increasingly unrealistic images of how they should look as they age, pushing them harder than ever to counter the effects of getting old. This is a particular issue in our current culture, since it often presents youth as the standard of beauty, and older people are expected to try to imitate a younger age, rather than embrace their own.

One of the more well-known eating disorders that they can develop is anorexia. Anorexia nervosa is a psychiatric diagnosis that describes an eating disorder characterised by low body weight and body image distortion with an obsessive fear of gaining weight. Those with the illness control body weight by voluntary starvation, purging, vomiting, excessive exercise or other weight control measures, such as diet pills or diuretic drugs.

The past years have seen a significant increase in the number of middle-aged women with anorexia.

According to mental health charity Verywell Mind, research shows that around 3.6% of women aged 40 to 50 years experience some sort of eating disorder every year. But these disorders do not, in reality, just pop up in later years due to external factors.
According to midlife eating disorder specialist Dr Holly Grishkat, midlife or older women living with eating disorders essentially fall into three categories:

  • Those who have struggled with an eating disorder for years without seeking treatment
  • Those who had an eating disorder as a teen or young adult and recovered, only to relapse in midlife
  • Those who develop an eating disorder for the first time in midlife

In the majority of cases, the eating disorder in question will have its roots in a girl’s formative years. Therefore, the women who turn up for treatment in their later years are usually from the first two categories listed above. The result is that almost all women who have an eating disorder later in life have, in fact, been suffering from it for many years.

In the main, women are likely to grow out of an eating disorder if it is fairly mild, but the increasing focus of women on their appearance as they get older may influence this trend adversely.

In conclusion, the unrealistic images of mature celebrities are an aggravating factor at best, and the root cause at worst. More importantly, these cases prove that eating disorders can affect anyone at any age, and people should not assume that someone is not susceptible to developing symptoms, or redeveloping symptoms, just because they’ve passed the 30-year mark.
But there is also a third, and perhaps slightly more positive point to consider. The fact that a larger number of older women are being diagnosed with an eating disorder might also be a reflection of the fact that, during the last several decades, having such disorders has become more acceptable enabling women to acknowledge their illness and to seek help. This, therefore, may also be contributing to the rise in the number of logged cases.

So, what can be done about this? Should people continue to focus their efforts on breaking the stigma around these mental diseases? Or should perhaps more effort be put into treatment instead, particularly for those experiencing it in later years?

Well, as pointed out, most women who have a chronic form of an eating disorder later in life have been ill for many years. And, in fact, they often do not really want to make a full recovery, instead wanting help to live with their eating disorder in a healthier way.

Treatment for the illness varies from patient to patient, but it often consists of some dietary advice and cognitive behaviour therapy. Only severely underweight patients are advised to stay in a psychiatric clinic to increase their weight initially. So, although logged cases are rising and the stigma is being reduced around the disease, sadly, despite the life-threatening nature of eating disorders, many women prefer to receive only limited help, and seldom join an anorexic programme or wish to return to a normal body weight.

The stigma associated with these diseases has reduced, but not totally disappeared. And treatments can be effective, but not if the patients in question are averse to making a total change from their current lifestyle. It seems therefore that the actual solution is, as always, to look at the root causes – whether they be unrealistic body images earlier or later in life – and to fight them.

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