Until recently, eating disorders were considered a condition largely restricted to adolescents and young adults. But research carried out at the University College London has found that three percent of women in their forties and fifties have newly diagnosed eating disorders. 5300 women in this age group participated in the study. In older women, eating disorders are often brought about by divorce, financial strain, empty nest, unemployment, menopause or bereavement.
Our culture has an obsession with the thin and youthful form. Some older women have spent a lifetime dieting in a bid to remain thin and youthful. Our fascination with youthfulness and with super slim, athletic bodies have left these women feeling unappreciated, which may be a serious issue, especially when they have to deal with the breakdown of relationships or the departure of children. Under these circumstances, the woman can feel as though she no longer has much value. This is particularly so when the household has been her main focus. Losing weight and excessive exercise can replace this focus to the point of obsession
In our weight-biased culture, when a fat person loses weight, it is almost always seen as a good thing. Even when that weight loss is caused by an eating disorder. — Alexis Conason Psy.D.
LIFE CHANGES CAN TRIGGER EATING DISORDERS
Disordered eating is all about the wish to regain control of a situation. It is always brought about by stressful conditions. Women in mid life face many traumas, any one of which can result in the onset of an eating disorder.
- Some may have to look after aging and ailing parents. This may result in unexpressed resentments
- The death of one or both parents must be faced by most adults
- Many women find it difficult to accept the onset of old age especially if the self-esteem of the individual is based on a personal image.
- Changes in relationships often have major negative effects on a woman’s self-esteem. Divorce or separation can be particularly traumatic, even if the divorce was the desired outcome. A lack of self- esteem sometimes results in the woman pursuing a better body image by dieting and exercise.
- Even a second marriage can be very difficult as the woman tries to adapt to the new way of life, including the merging of two families.
- The departure of the children from the home can leave women struggling to find new meaning in life
- Unemployment at a late stage in life can be devastating to the older woman. The employment queues are filled with younger, dynamic people and she may battle to find new employment. Her reaction may be an attempt to look more youthful by losing weight.
- The death of a child or spouse or the onset of severe illness may also result in the onset of eating disorders.
Very often, eating disorders start with the very valid intention of wanting to lose weight, but under the right set of circumstances, it can develop into something out of control. Ironically, the condition is often born from a wish for control.
Eating disorders are not a choice. No one chooses to lose all of their friends, because they cannot go anywhere that there will be food. — Jennifer Rollin MSW, LCSW-C
WHAT IS THE EXTENT OF THE PROBLEM
There are three categories of older women who have eating disorders
- Those that have struggled with the condition in the past, but have not sought treatment
- Those who have previously been treated and have now relapsed
- Those who have just developed the condition.
The Gender and Body Image Study conducted online found that 13% of women over 50 had symptoms of eating disorders, sixty-two percent had a negative view of their weight and body shape. The symptoms of eating disorders in the older women are similar to those of a younger age but the outcomes can be very different. Older women typically do not have the same support systems that are available to the adolescent.
The health effects of eating disorders in older woman are normally a lot more severe as the aging body recovers more slowly. It is therefore crucial that the sufferer seeks help.
Feelings of shame and guilt about one’s self image can cause individuals to continue on a cycle of stress if they do not have a productive outlet. — Greta Gleissner LCSW
Weight loss in older women may be due to reasons other than eating disorders. Medication and poor dentition can also be a cause. If the family is concerned there are signs that they can look for.
The signs and symptoms that may indicate a problem are
- A major loss of weight over a relatively short period.
- Behavioral changes particularly around meal times
- The presence of laxatives, diet tablets, and diuretics
- Missing food
- A wish to eat alone
- Dental damage, excess hair loss and gastrointestinal problems
Older women tend to feel more ashamed of their eating disorders as they may feel that they should be role models to the younger generation. They may, therefore, find it difficult to seek help.
It is now known that eating disorders, once considered a problem afflicting young people, are prevalent amongst older people as well. Because the aging body is less likely to tolerate the effects of malnutrition it is vitally important that the disorder is treated.