Eating Disorders in Older Women

Although we tend to think of eating disorders as something which is more common in younger women–those in their teens and twenties–doctors are seeing more and more older women, even baby boomers, with moderate to severe eating disorders. Many of these women are either fighting post-pregnancy weight, or trying to stave off midlife weight gain due to menopause or may simply be getting older and less active. An eating disorder can also strike from an emotional crisis trigger such as the depression from a divorce, a death, or a child who has left home.

The high rate of divorce has left many women thrown back into the dating game in their forties, fifties or sixties, and they may feel that if they are ever going to “find a man again”, they must be thin. Other women who are married, but find out their husband is having an affair may feel he strayed because she gained weight, therefore the only way to “get him back,” is to become very thin. Women in these situations may focus on their weight above all else, believing that when they become thin they will also become happy.

A woman’s self-esteem could be at an all-time low due to a variety of factors, and she can feel lonely and isolated–all of which can lead to eating disorders. Finally, there is the incredible pressure all women feel about living up to our society’s impossibly high body image and weight standards. Even women who look perfectly “normal” may be searching for that Hollywood body, and when they are unable to attain it, they turn to anorexia, bulimia or other forms of eating disorders. Those around them may have no idea the problem has gotten to a serious point, therefore are unable to offer help and support.

Whatever the reason behind the extreme desire to lose weight, it can become an overwhelming obsession in an older woman’s life. Aside from a culture who sets a pretty high bar for women’s looks, we are also a culture of extremes-rarely do Americans do things in moderation. Therefore women who are attempting to lose weight may feel there is no middle ground, only perfection.

Are Eating Disorders Genetic?

Some studies suggest that genetics do play a role in eating disorders as they appear to run in families. Identical twins tend to be much more likely than fraternal twins to have eating disorders, meaning the genetic factor creates specific personality traits which are common to eating disorders–namely anxiety, obsession and perfectionism. One of the major differences between a teenager with an eating disorder and a sixty-year old woman is that a teen can be forced to seek treatment, but it becomes much more complicated with a grown woman. The family may be concerned, but feel there is little they can do about their loved one’s obvious eating disorder.

When to be Concerned

If you are worried that your mother, sister, aunt or even grandmother may have an eating disorder, then you probably have good reason to worry. Perhaps you have noticed a dramatic change in their eating patterns, along with a very noticeable loss of weight. Serious mood changes may be noticeable as well as all levels of depression. Many doctors feel that eating disorders relate in some way to fulfilling a need. It is crucial to determine what this need is, and how it can be met in a way other than starving or bingeing and purging.

Unfortunately older women may not be as able to fully recover from an eating disorder as younger women-after all they have already reached an age where their metabolism is slowing down, therefore once they are engaged in the behaviors of an eating disorder, it can affect them much more intensely-and more quickly. It is crucial to get professional help when you are suffering from an eating disorder.

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