Eating disorders are typically thought of as a problem among adolescent girls, but researchers are seeing many women over the age of 50 practicing unhealthy eating behaviors.
Researchers at the University of North Carolina found that almost 4 percent of women over the age of 50 report binge eating. Nearly 8 percent report purging, more than 70 percent diet to lose weight and 62 percent say their weight or shape adversely affects their lives.
“Everyone, especially health-care providers, needs to erase stereotypes about who experiences disordered eating,” said Cynthia Bulik, lead researcher and director of the University of North Carolina Eating Disorders Program.
“Women well into their 50s and beyond still report struggling with weight dissatisfaction and a palette of unhealthy behaviors aimed at weight control. Our ‘70 is the new 50’ society may be placing additional appearance pressures on women that perpetuate disordered eating practices well into older adulthood.”
For the study, Bulik’s team collected data on more than 1,800 women in the nation who took part in the Gender and Body Image Study. Among them, about 27 percent were obese, 29 percent were overweight, 42 percent were normal weight and 2 percent were underweight.
Approximately 8 percent of women said they purged in the last five years and 3.5 percent said they had binged in the past month. Most of the women were in their early 50s, but there were also some over 75, according to the study.
In addition, 26 percent of the women said they had spent half their time dieting in the last five years, 41 percent said they checked their body size and shape daily, and 40 percent weighed themselves at least twice a week.
Sixty-two percent of the women said their weight or shape had a negative impact on their life, 79 percent said it affected their image of themselves, and 64 percent said they thought about it daily.
Many of the women said they resorted to unhealthy ways to lose weight, including diet pills, excessive exercise, diuretics, laxatives and vomiting.
“We simply cannot ignore disordered eating and weight dissatisfaction in women over 50,” Bulik said. “But we have no idea how to tailor interventions for women over 50 so treatment can be appropriate to their developmental stage in life. That is a critical next step.”
Types of disorders
Eating disorders can have dire consequences, Bulik said, adding that anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness.
Dr. Catherine Coles, a physician at Davis Internal Medicine and Davis Hospital and Medical Center, said there are three main eating disorders she finds in her patients:
1) Anorexia nervosa, characterized by an abnormally low body weight, an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted perception of body weight and shape,
2) Bulimia nervosa, binge eating followed by purging, or other inappropriate compensatory behaviors to prevent weight gain, and
3) Binge eating, consuming a large amount of food in a relatively short period of time, mostly in private due to embarrassment, and often eating until uncomfortable.
“The reported rise is thought in part to be due to societal pressures to remain ‘young and thin looking’ and unrealistic expectations that media impart due to the artificial portrayal of successful older women as looking similar to women half their age,” Coles said.
“Other culprits include life changes, including relationship changes, menopause and children leaving the home that often can be a trigger.”
Coles said behaviors — for instance, unrelenting depression or anxiety and obsession and compulsions, especially those regarding appearances — can tip off doctors.
“By the age of 50, we can expect our bodies to change, including an increase in our percentage of body fat and a decrease in our percentage of muscle mass,” Coles said. “This can partly be due to changes in hormones and metabolism, along with activity changes.”
Coles said older women are more susceptible to abdominal fat. As women age, they should still be in a normal Body Mass Index range of 19 to 25; however, skin and fat deposition sites will change due to lack of elasticity in skin and hormonal changes.
“Trying to re-create the body of a 20 year old is unrealistic and oftentime unhealthy for women,” she said. “It is important to focus on healthy eating habits and strength-building exercises for our general health and our bone health, but setting up unrealistic expectations for our bodies and ourselves can create a vicious cycle of unhappiness, depression and, eventually, obsession and poor behaviors.”
Acceptance is key
Whether one accepts it or not, time marches on, said Jennifer James, a registered and certified dietitian and outpatient dietitian at Ogden Regional Medical Center.
“It is much easier on one’s mental and emotional health if women accept their age at whatever stage in life and celebrate that,” she said. “It sure beats the alternative, an early death.”
Women need to become more comfortable with themselves.
“I think a lot of it has to do with their overall self-esteem,” said James. “I appreciate everything that has happened to me over the years. It makes me who I am. To pine for our lost youth is a waste of time, and it does not honor the person we have become.”
Society as a whole can help with this problem, James said, especially by casting older actresses in movies and hiring older models for magazine shoots.
“Start a culture that appreciates older women for who they are and what they can offer,” she said. “Love yourself for who you are and what you have experienced in your lifetime.
“I know of someone who would have given anything to have more wrinkles, age spots and gray hair. They died at 51.”