A preoccupation with personal weight and body image are things that women hope to eventually move beyond as they age. The truth, however, is that older women today are struggling to accept the way they look in their fifties nearly as much as they did when they were in their teens and twenties. That dissatisfaction is showing up at treatment centers where increasing numbers of older women are asking for help to conquer an eating disorder.
A decade ago the mean age for a woman with anorexia nervosa was somewhere in the late teens (usually 15 to 19 years of age). The mean age for a woman with bulimia was slightly older but still a tender 23 years. According to current treatment center statistics, greater than 50 percent of the cases showing up for help are among women over the age of 30. While eating disorders are still a serious problem among young women, more and more older women are finding that they too need some outside help in re-ordering their thinking and behavior surrounding food.
The majority of the time, older women dealing with an eating disorder are actually relapse cases for those who struggled with disordered eating in their younger years. One study reported that only 20 percent of women with an eating disorder will demonstrate chronic symptoms throughout their adulthood, and just 10 percent of eating disorders in mature women are first time cases. That means that young women who never fully dealt with their eating disorder are at risk for relapsing later in life.
Many experts feel that eating disorders stem from a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental stimuli. For older women, environmental stresses such as having children grow up and leave the home, experiencing a divorce or living through financial insecurity can trigger a reversion to disordered eating. It could also be that the emphasis placed upon youth and beauty by the culture at large, make some women feel pressure to look younger than their actual years.
Regardless of the specific later-in-life trigger, the fact remains that older women are reacting by hyper-controlling their weight either through calorie restriction or through purging (self-induced vomiting, diuretics or laxatives). Eating disorders are always dangerous. This mental illness is one of the most deadly. For older women, whose bodies are less able to cope with major stresses and deprivations, the consequences may appear sooner than they would in a younger woman. Consequences could include osteoporosis, heart problems, gastrointestinal problems and even dental ailments.
Added to the danger for the woman involved, is the chance that she is role modeling unhealthy attitudes and behaviors in front of younger women, usually her daughter. Women with an eating disorder are likely to inadvertently pass their illness along to the next generation. There are lots of things that women can expect will be remedied by time alone. Unfortunately, an eating disorder is not one of them.