Eating Disorders May Appear in Mid-Life

We are frequently reminded about the need to avoid weight gain, especially in older age to prevent chronic illness, but what’s lesser known is the number of middle-aged adults who struggle with weight loss as a result of eating disorders.  With so much stress and uncertainty in our lives presently, especially for women juggling careers, parenting, and caregiving for elderly parents, restricting food intake and losing weight may be the only thing some adults feel they can control.

According to a recent Prevention magazine report, the cultural pressure to stay slim and attractive weighs heavily on women, especially when post-menopausal weight gain may start to accumulate.  We commonly think of eating disorders as a problem among adolescents but according to 2012 research published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, about 5 to 10 percent of eating issues manifest for the first time in adulthood.  

Adults who lose weight rapidly due to food restriction (anorexia) or binge-eating and bulimia can experience serious health problems.  Eating disorders can disrupt all of the body’s systems and organs and lack of proper nourishment can drop blood pressure and estrogen levels in women, leading to falls and bone loss.  Because the brain requires calories to function properly, cognitive function can be impaired with severe diet restrictions.   Heart arrhythmia and heart failure may also result from ongoing purging which can deplete the body of electrolytes that help trigger and conduct electrical impulses to the heart. 

Older women who have eating disorders may develop more muscle loss along with faster cognitive impairment and digestive problems.   Getting medical help to treat eating disorders is vital as older adults don’t bounce back as easily from physical problems.  It may help to know that middle-aged and older adults are not alone in facing eating disorders; research finds that 13 percent of midlife women have an eating disorder, 60 percent say concerns about their weight negatively shape their lives, and 70 percent report they are trying to lose weight.

Eating disorders not only can cause physical health problems but also influence quality of life, productivity at work, and well-being at home.  And because many insurance companies don’t cover the cost of care for eating disorders, there is often a financial impact as well.   An eating disorder is a mental illness that is closely related to depression and anxiety, and many sufferers isolate themselves from friends and family.

But by seeking help, many older adults can succeed in overcoming unhealthy eating patterns and make progress with counseling and other therapies to maintain a healthy weight and combat body image problems.  Learn more about how to determine if you have an eating disorder and where to look for help by following this link to Harvard Women’s Health Watch.