Eating Disorders Common In Older Women

By Amir Khan on June 21, 2012 11:57 AM EDT

Elderly
Many people think of eating disorders as affecting teens and young adults, but according to a new study, middle-aged women suffer from them just as much as the younger generation. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Many people think of eating disorders as affecting teens and young adults, but according to a new study, published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders on Wednesday, middle-aged women suffer from them just as much as the younger generation.

Researchers surveyed more than 1,800 women over the age of 50 in order to assess how pervasive eating disorders are in the older population. They found that 62 percent reported that their weight interferes with their lives, 70 percent said they were dieting or trying to lose weight, and 8 percent admitted to purging -- throwing up after eating.

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"Strikingly, things are as bad in this age group as they are in the younger age groups," Dr. Cynthia Bulik, study author and director of the University of North Carolina Eating Disorders Program, told WebMD. "I was sort of gobsmacked that 8% reported purging in the last five years."

Researchers said societal pressure forces the women to try to look younger than they actually are.

"Part of that is '70 is the new 50,'" she told WebMD. "We have to keep our body looking 20 years younger than it actually is, and that's an enormous amount of pressure for these women. That's what sort of puts them on this slippery slope. They see the distance between what's happening to themselves, their body and the societal ideal, and then they start engaging in really unhealthy weight control practices."

More than 7 percent of women admitted to using diet pills or excessive exercise, and 2 percent admitted to using laxatives in an attempt to lose weight.

William Walters, helpline manager for the National Eating Disorders Association, told ABC News that it can be more difficult for older people to get help for an eating disorder because it is seen as a young-person condition.

"It can be hard to come forward because some older patients are concerned about the stigma of having a younger person's disorder, but we know that eating disorders persist into older adulthood, eating disorders relapse during older adulthood and we know that late onset occurs, too," he said.

Sarah Parker, director of anxiety and eating disorders at the Reeds Treatment Center in New York, told ABC news family members often go about trying to help in the wrong way.

"Families and friends tend to say, 'You should eat more,' or, 'You need to exercise less,' but that can turn into a negative cycle very quickly," she said. ""Try to respond to the pain over the behavior by saying something like, 'It seems like you're not doing very well, can we help you speak with a therapist or minister?'"

Ultimately, the only way to help these women is to get people to recognize that eating disorders affect the older population, Bulik told WebMD.

"There's some stereotype erasure that we have to do," she says. "We have to change the picture in our minds of who gets these things."

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