Eating disorders in older women: What Are The Risks

Eating disorders in older women

Eating disorders in older women: According to an Austrian study from 2006, 60% of women over 60 years of age were dissatisfied with their bodies and body weight, and 4% met the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder.

Eating disorders are generally associated with adolescent girls and young women. However, it is not uncommon for eating disorders to appear in older women, although the type and the way in which they affect present some differences.

It is a serious condition that affects not only the way you eat. It has a significant impact on the physical and emotional health of those affected, as well as their productivity and social relationships.

Next, we learn more about the characteristics of this disease in adult women, what are the most common types of eating disorders, and what can be the warning signs.

How rare are eating disorders in older women?

Food-related problems such as anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder are imaginary linked to the female gender and adolescent age. But women around the age of 60 are also susceptible to them.

And the data corroborate it. Community surveys conducted in Australia in 1995 and 2005 showed that older women who reported following strict diets, fasting, or purging increased significantly within a decade.

It was also found that in this period, the practice of strict diets, fasting, and binge eating tripled and purgative behaviors multiplied by four. In data on Canadian women, it was found that between the ages of 45 and 64 were more likely than young women to binge, feel guilty about eating, or worry about food.

Although a clear distinction is made between those women who start the disorder at these late ages and those who suffer relapses or chronicity of a problem that began in adolescence, there are a number of conditioning factors in mature age that make them more vulnerable.

What factors can trigger an eating disorder?

Any stage or moment of transition in a person’s life can lead to an eating behavior problem. One of them is adolescence. However, during the ages 40 to 60 (known as second adulthood), many women also experience periods of exploration of a new identity.

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It is considered a moment of more vulnerability to present disorders, especially in relation to the affective, anxious, and eating behavior spectrum. According to the psychologist Dr. Cabrera, some of the destabilizing factors at this age are the following:

  • Feeling of loss of position, social status, or distortion of body image in a clearly youth-oriented world. 
  • Death of a loved one and/or difficult grief problems.
  • Divorce or emotional breakup. 
  • Suffering from a traumatic illness.
  • Feeling of loss of control in a life that you try to overcome with diet control. 
  • Role changes in the couple or in relation to the children.

Menopause and eating disorders

Menopause is a stage in the life of women characterized by the end of the menstrual cycle permanently. Although it can occur anywhere between the ages of 41 and 50, most women reach it around the age of 51. 

The hormonal alteration that it entails is characterized by the possible appearance of some symptoms such as sweating, hot flashes, insomnia, or dry mucous membranes. Less well known but also very present are emotional disturbances such as anxiety, fear, and irritability.

It is not usual for women to talk about all these physical, psychological, and emotional changes in this new stage. On the contrary, it seems that society is pushing towards a remodeling of the body through diets, pills, or physical exercise. 

Given these characteristics, menopause becomes a vital risk moment for the development of new eating disorders or the reappearance of previous problems. And as seen in the previous section, there are very specific determinants of this age that can act as a catalyst.

Types of TCA

Problems related to eating behavior in women tend to have the same pattern and behavior: caloric restriction, bingeing, and purging.

The existing scientific evidence around this topic shows a lower prevalence of bulimia and anorexia nervosa in adulthood compared to adolescence. Instead, more binge eating disorders and other unspecified types usually appear. 

Anorexia nervosa

The data seem a bit contradictory according to the sources consulted. Although it is considered a rare problem in women between the ages of 40 and 60, some research has shown its existence.

Although some cases of the onset of the disease are shown around the age of 45 or beyond, most of the time, these are cases that started before the age of 25 and that remain chronically and lastingly over time. 

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Late anorexia

This is a term that doctor P. Dally introduced. With him, he refers to those women who develop this disease in response to a marital crisis. It appears near the age of marriage, before pregnancy, or after childbirth. 

Anorexia of aging

This is a very prevalent phenomenon among the female gender and refers to a regular restriction of caloric intake in people over 65 years of age. It seems that 20% of the population suffers from this situation. 

It can be derived from the change that occurs over the years, both in eating habits and in the sensation of appetite. It is usually more present in institutionalized women.

Its existence is associated with problems such as sarcopenia, osteopenia, deterioration in functional status, increased hospital admissions, decreased immune system, and difficulties in healing.

More eating disorders in older women: bulimia nervosa

Data shows that 2.8% of women in the United States will suffer from bulimia nervosa at some point in their life. In adulthood, there is no consensus on its origin, although the menopausal period and social pressures around body image and age are critical and favorable points of its appearance. 

It is characterized by compulsive eating cycles with compensatory purging or detoxification stages to prevent weight gain. The ingestion is usually of very high amounts of food, generally very caloric, and in a very short time. 

Binge eating disorder

It is the most common after 45 years of age, and most of the time, it is due to a chronic presentation or a relapse from a previous beginning.

This type of problem is of special concern because of the health consequences that it entails. A series of metabolic alterations have been produced that end up affecting the cardiovascular system and increase the risk of obesity, arterial hypertension, dyslipidemia, and insulin resistance. 

In addition, if obesity occurs, the situation can be aggravated by psychiatric symptoms. Depression and low self-esteem can appear, creating a vicious cycle that further aggravates the consequences of binge eating disorder, if possible. 

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Signs of an eating disorder

Exaggerated physical exercise and low caloric intake can be symptoms of eating disorders in later life.

The context and circumstances of bulimia or anorexia are different depending on the age at which the disease is suffered. However, the signs and warning signs are often generalizable.

As experts from the National Eating Disorders Association indicate, some of the behaviors that may indicate a problem include the following:

  • Habitual preoccupation with food, weight loss, and diet. 
  • Performing food rituals, restrictions on specific food groups, significant caloric restriction.
  • Changes in behaviors and eating habits. Skipping meals, eating alone regularly, binge eating, going to the bathroom right after eating.
  • Weightloss.
  • Use of pills and other medications with laxative, diuretic, or slimming properties.
  • Excessive and/or obsessive physical exercise. 
  • Anxiety and habitual mood swings.
  • Physical signs: dizziness, muscle weakness, usual cold feeling, trouble sleeping, the existence of lanugo, anemia …

Eating disorders in older women are not rare and affect their quality of life.

EDs greatly affect the quality of life of people who suffer from them both in adolescence and in adulthood. In the latter, it can even worsen work productivity, the home environment, and bring negative economic consequences.

Shame and secrecy are part of the problem and often prevent affected women from asking for help. In this case, the stigma of being an adult woman with an adolescent disease can also be added.

However, today awareness of the existence of eating disorders in adult women is more widespread. There is a wider range of treatments and therapies to seek options to improve this problem.

Although, on some occasions, this disease can remain ingrained for years or even decades, maturity is also an advantage to deal with it, in part due to the greater experience of life.

Many women who have not been able to overcome the problem in adolescence or youth do so past the age of fifty or sixty. In addition, experts point out that although the disease is usually underdiagnosed, there is an increase in the request for help. 

The best way to accompany someone with eating disorders is to let them know that you have the support and someone to talk to. 

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