Eating Disorders Strike Later in Life

By , SparkPeople Blogger
When you think of someone with an eating disorder, the typical stereotype probably comes to mind: female in high school or college who is a perfectionist and overachiever. Although part of that description might be accurate, eating disorders don't affect just the young. Of the over 10 million people who suffer from some kind of disordered eating (anorexia, binge eating, bulimia, etc.) the percentage of middle-aged women is rising.

Eating disorders tend to be triggered by life changes. In young people, those changes are usually things like going off to college or changes in friendships and social relationships. In older adults, it could be a divorce or kids moving out of the house. The lack of control in those areas of life leads to a fixation on things that can be controlled- like food.

It's also hard to ignore the affect the media has on these trends. I have to chuckle at shows like the "Real Housewives". Not much about them seems real to me, but they are middle-aged women who are beautiful, thin, successful and seem to have it all. It would be hard for anyone to live up to that standard, but some women feel pressure to try.

I have a family member who is about to turn 60, and I believe she has an eating disorder. She'd never recognize that her calorie restrictive diet, excessive exercise and obsession with looking young aren't normal. She thinks it's just all part of the aging process. When we've tried to bring it up with her in the past, she dismisses our concerns. I don't think her life is in danger, but I do think she's an unhealthy example for anyone around her.

Many middle-aged women are able to hide their disorder because they seem to function normally in their everyday lives, so the numbers of them could actually be much higher than we know. Those people who don't know my family member would think she's just a small lady who doesn't have a big appetite. In fact, I've had others comment to me about how cute she is and how they wished they looked more like her. If only they knew the truth.

It's easy to assume that if you don't have a traditional eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia, you must be fine. There are all kinds of eating disorders, and having an unhealthy relationship with food is part of that. Binge eating, punishing yourself with excessive exercise for eating too much or never being happy with your body, regardless of size, can all be considered disordered behaviors. What starts out as a simple plan to eat healthy and exercise regularly can turn into an unhealthy problem. To learn more about the signs of disordered eating, check out What is "Normal" Eating? and Recognizing Eating Disorders and Getting Help.

What do you think?

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REDROBIN47 1/16/2020
Interesting information. Report
GRALAN 6/4/2019
One of the greatest gifts we can give our elderly is to keep checking up on them regularly and frequently is my suggestion. Report
GEORGE815 5/8/2019
It is a daily challenge to stay on course. The long term healthy way is so important. Report
Oops... tiny phone screen ... dieticians. Report
It’s not simply a distorted body image or the fashion mags, but pressure from friends, family, and comments from nearly anywhere. We have messed up relationship with food and the mirror. I don’t care if it is a ‘disorder’, a disease, or a psychological set of symptoms... the commentary here shows that mors time and energy needs to be spent on this area. Where are the pros ? The dutytiibs? Report
I hope the outporing of thoughtful commentary here soarks some kind of response in Spark. The unhealthy attitude some of us have is often attrubuted to a life event. Our club has a brudal booty camp . It akways makes me wonder if we will see these after tge wedding. body Report
Great tips! Thank you for sharing. Report
Restrictive eating was and is excessively common among older women. The only difference these days is that it *might* be diagnosed as an ED today. This is how the older women we knew as kids stayed thin. As a culture we turned a blind eye to it. Report
I'd like examples of what a healthy relationship with food might look like. Report
I've had an eating disorder off and on since I was 15. Until rejoining SparkPeople, I would go days without eating and then eat Cherry Pie. The whole pie! I'm so overweight that no one would ever consider that I still struggle with this demon. I'm trying to do better and I log my food every day. Since logging, there's been no long period of no eating followed by a Pie binge. Oh, I'm 60 years old. Report
It took me until several months ago to acknowledge it, but I have a problem with binge eating. To be honest, it's not a new problem, but as a single person, it was easier to both hide and compensate for my binges. Joining the Spark community has helped keep this behavior in check, probably because it helps me feel accountable to the community. I guess since I know that there is a group of people rooting for me, I don't want to let them down! However, I take exception to the article's implication that "calorie restrictive diet, excessive exercise and obsession with looking young aren't normal." It seems that any time a middle-aged (or older) woman tries to fend off the ravages of age, she's "obsessing," being "unhealthy," or "shallow." So, primping in front of a mirror is suitable only for teenagers-milennials? Look: just because we're menopausal DOESN'T mean we're ready to look or act old! Why is it OK to "love and accept" my body, but not to try to improve it to the best of my ability? Given also that, for many older women, metabolism slows down, we DO need to restrict our calories. Report
when i stress i binge eat big time......i feel overstuffed and then go to extremes with's a bad habit I'm trying to break....... Report
Light bulb moment; When I divorced, I lost a lot of weight, I didn't realize until my sister visited, and she commented that I looked emaciated. I had made sure my sons had good meals, but I was on this coffee and cigarette diet, and didn't really pay attention to my own health. Than I went the other way. But, now, I am trying to find a happy medium, and it's starting to work! Report
I had an eating disorder, in my late 20's, but nothing since then. Maybe I have an eating disorder now...can't stop eating, but I'm trying. Report
Most middle aged women don't suffer from eating disorders that RESTRICT food intake. In fact, I think the opposite is true! Why not focus on OVEReating disorders and try to find the root of it. I mean, this is a good article BUT don't Americans have a bigger problem w/ obesity than they do w/ emanciation?? Just sayin' .... Report
Many scientific studies have shown that a low calorie diet can contribute to longer life. Of course, that doesn't mean not eating enough to maintain one's health. Also, if never being happy with your body - for whatever reason - is a disorder, than I would guess that a very, very high percentage of women - of all ages and sizes - have this disorder. It does make sense that someone who has been obsessed with their weight when younger would carry it into their old age. Interesting blog. Thanks. Report
I write to Health and Fitness oriented magazines, women's magazine's, etc. often to complain to the way they push women to get not just healthy or slimmer, but SKINNY!!! Supposedly women should look like a 13 year old girl just barely starting to "bud out", in the current culture. On various weight loss forums, every day, people moan and groan because they ate some bread or potatoe or something, and berate themselves for being "Bad" or "naughty", then they starve themselves in order to feel the punishment. This stuff has been really going on for years though, it's the internet bringing out the truth person to person. I think doctor's and insurance companies are afraid of this truth, there arn't enough rehab places out there, for one thing. And forming groups and yakking about it still won't put a stop on the different forms of overeating. Obsessive compulsive behavior takes time to learn to control, and there also is no cure for it, just as any addictive behavior always has to be kept in the back of one's mind, control doesn't come easy! A good blog, should be talked about more often.........get Oprah in on it!! Report
Fighting Major & Chronic Depression for the past seven years, brought on by a really severe case of PTSD, has done absolutely nothing to help me in controlling weight. Eating gave me relief and made me feel better. It was a "reward".
Through personal research I found that more than 80% of the Seratonin in our bodies are in our stomachs (Seratonin is our "feel good" chemical). We are rewarded by our bodies for eating certain things - like chocolate, and by overeating in general.
My Psychiatrist has taught me that we have to teach our bodies that a lower level of Seratonin is acceptable, but because we have to eat, after we have become accustomed to a certain level of Seratonin, it is a lifelong battle to Not succumb to that urge to re-attain that level of "feel good".
While not currently accepted by the medical community, it is actually an eating disorder and accounts for the yo-yo'ing many of us experience. My p-doc doesn't always subscribe to all of the "technical" definitions the psychiatric community adheres to, but to the real, observable, things that he sees on a daily basis.
Finding a psychiatrist who doesn't discount me because something "isn't in the book" has helped me lower the amount of medications I need to control my Depression. Looking at my triggers realistically, at my age (64) means there is a strong possibility I will be taking psych meds the rest of my life - just like I will be taking insulin for my diabetes. Both are illnesses caused by chemical short circuits in my body and not some 'weakness' I need to punish myself for (I have to continuously reinforce that thought, though, or I can find myself in a relapse).
@ TODDJAMES. I believe as you. I feel we can be in remission but continuously need to guard against a relapse. Report
I asked if there was any treatment available for people who couldn't stop overeating and was told that it was not a problem, only anorexia and bulemia were problems. Don't they understand that many things in a person's background can cause eating disorders in either direction? When my dad died I gained about 20 pounds right away and never lost it. When my mom died I put on another almost 30 pounds in less than 6 months (probably more like 3). Other people stop eating when they are stressed. For them, there is professional help. For overeaters the only help is non-professional, at least around here. For overeaters, they are just called lazy bums. Report
I'm glad that more professionals are recognizing that eating disorders aren't confined to younger women. As this blog correctly notes, middle aged and older women are prone too. Unfortunately, I've seen this behavior exhibited by Spark members. These are incredibly intelligent women at a healthy weight for their height, who think they're fat. As a result, they are engaging in the behaviors the article talks about i.e. eating too little and exercising too much.

You'd think that by the time we've reached middle age, we'd be content in our skins. But no, many women are not happy. We're bombarded of images of the Desperate Housewives and told this is how we should look !! Yes, we're taking better care of ourselves and looking better, but those types of images are just not realistic. So, why do women torture themselves to attain an unrealistic image ?

We should be proud of what our bodies can do ! We shouldn't be miserable because we don't look the way the magazines tell us. Those types of images help create a lack of self esteem which in turn causes us to engage in those unhealthy behaviors to attain an unhealthy weight for our height.

Great topic ! Report
Thank you for the blog Jen, you've brought up a little-known and little-discussed problem. It definitely needs attention.

And yes, men and boys can definitely have disorders. That is definitely over -looked. Report
While I applaud the appreciation and attention given to aging women, there is growing media pressure on us middle-aged women to remain "hot". I have struggled my whole life with eating issues, trying to figure out how much is too much, and how much is not enough. I've been told I was too thin, but media images tell me that I'm too fat. It all boils down to listening to your inner voice and loving yourself, and we're not given much support to do that. I wish more attention was given to people who are comfortable in their own skin, like Queen Latifah or Danielle Adams (NCAA basketball star). Report
I've tried talking to my psychologist about my relationship with food. Each time he tells me I am not over weight, it doesn't look like I'm affected by an eating disorder, and to try chewing gum instead of eating. I guess if I were stick thin or obese he would see a problem? Report
Phooey! I sought help from an eating disorder specialist. I found out that young, willowy, slender, beautiful and vulnerable anorexia victims had an eating disorder, while fat middle-aged women in sweat pants who were compulsive overeaters were merely uncaring selfish slobs who should use their will power. I saw prejudice against middle-aged and older women and against fat people. Young and beautiful women were considered valid and worth helping, but older fat women were considered worthless.

I do get that recently they've been looking at this issue again, and some of the eating disorder experts are coming to realize that compulsive overeating is an eating disorder, too. Report
It's a good topic to discuss, but I don't feel very comfortable with the fact that this very public blog suggests that a specific person in your life has an eating disorder. Even though no name is said, presumably anyone in your social circle who happens to like to read your blogs has a fair chance of inferring which person who is about to turn 60 that you mean. I also don't really feel that the specific details really add anything to the blog that wouldn't be managed by something more vague like "I know a person in this age group who..." (Of course, if you requested and got her permission to use her as an example here, I have no reason at all to find this a little troubling) Report
When I hear someone angry at themselves for eating over 1000 calories that day, I feel sad. I am eating so much wonderful food AND losing weight! I am glad to have found SparkPeople and their messages to learn how to form a healthy relationship with food. I've witnessed many friends battle eating disorders and at one point, considered learning to purge to lose weight like them... glad I never did!! Report
Disordered thinking and obsessing about food and intake/output are what eating disorders are about. Anyone can become vulnerable to going over the tipping point, any age, any gender. This is always important to remember - no one is immunune! Report
How long has this been going on?

I ask because how eating disorders present themselves can change over time.

I know this because I am 55 and have fought ED since I was 18.

Your family member may have been struggling for years without anyone noticing!

What you describe indicates someone who needs help; I hope she makes the decision to get some, but with all the positive feedback?

Not likely. Report
I was hoping this blog would touch on the eating disorders that don't get much press but it again focused on anorexia, binge eating, bulimia. It is a great article nonetheless and I can appreciate the facts. Report
This blog really hit home for me, I lost my niece this past november to an eating disorder because of no one really knowing how serious it was until it was too late and she was only 18. And the worst part was she was never overweight at all.
From this I have learned being someone dealing with trying to lose a total of 120 pounds, to use her memories everyday for encouragement and dedication to losing it the right way. I Love you Reanna Sarphie you will live for ever in my mind and in my heart. If life was easy there would be nothing to Live for... Report
I think you are right on! I am eating more than I dreamed of being able to eat on a "diet" because this is not a diet - it is a life-style change that will eventually incorporate all the foods I crave, just not as often or as much. I am retired and I have really started focusing on healthy living - moderate exercise and great food! It was a great article and made me think twice about "am I being too vigilant." thanks Report
@ ACWYNN55 I'm sorry to hear that about your mother. I am a nurse and work in a doctor's office. I see it from all ages from elementary school to nursing home an obsession about stepping on the scale. I once heard a patient tell her daughter, "I told you I didn't like drinking those ensures they make you fat." "Guess who's not drinking them anymore?" She weighed 110 and was 5'6"! There is also this push to be the "correct BMI" or your insurance rates will go up. So often people being to fixate on weight and it becomes an addiction. I had never thought about how any type of life changes that occur no matter what the age could actually trigger this type of behavior. Thanks Jen for the Healthy Blog. Report
Bless you for speaking up on a very heart-rending problem that is one of many Hiding or secretive disorders - we need more info and more awareness in our country! Report
I think this is VERY INTERSTING! I had a eating disorder for a number of years...when I was a performer! Doctors said I "recovered"...but how could I have "recovered" by gaining 150 pounds? Seems like that is just an eating disorder of another kind! I have lost 70...gained 15+ back...and stopping the yo-yo and continuing on.

Reality...once a disorder...always a disorder!

Jen contact me...LOVE to talk about it from a MALE perceptive...I think you would be SURPRISED at the number of us that there are with this VERY ISSUE!

Great article and awareness btw! Where are my manners!?! Report
My mother had an eating disorder very late in life, which started after she retired at 71. She was obsessed with the scale all her life, but after retiring she focused on her weight and kept getting thinner and thinner. We didn't realize it how serious it was until she landed in the hospital with malnutrition. She had ruined her health and died a month later. I really didn't see it until it was too late. Report