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Who's Too Old for an Eating Disorder?

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When it comes to eating disorders, age is only a number.

woman standing leaning forward against a wooden hand rail

Maggie Baumann, MA: When you think about those who struggle with eating disorders, what types of people come to mind?

Most would say girls in their teens and young female adults. And for the most part, they'd be correct, because most eating disorders do strike this age group. However, we mustn't forget that teen and young-adult males are also susceptible.

So we know what the norm is, but who else develops these potentially fatal diseases? Sometimes eating disorders don't pop up in women until their midlife years -- although researchers have found that many of these older and wiser women often struggled with eating disorders during their teenage years. (Some of them found a healthy recovery in the past, only to discover that the disorder re-emerged during midlife; others struggled in silence throughout their 20s and 30s.)

A 2008 study conducted by the Eating Disorder Center of Denver confirmed that an increasing number of women in midlife (ages 30 to 65) are struggling with all types of eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia and binge eating.

On a personal note, I have facilitated eating-support groups for more than five years, and one of the oldest participants I encountered was a bulimic woman in her 80s seeking treatment for the first time in her life. So no one is really immune to an eating disorder, despite age.

Why Midlife?
The causes of midlife eating disorders are varied. Some reflect the same issues the younger population experiences, such as low self-esteem, negative body image, depression, anxiety, abuse and trauma. However, mature women are also trying to balance family obligations, raise children and manage work -- all while obsessing about their bodies getting older (which involves dealing with wrinkles, gray hair, weight gain and entering menopause). Other midlife-eating-disorder causes include empty-nest syndrome, divorce or the death of a loved one.

Parenting can be a big motivator for midlife women to seek help. Once mothers understand how their own self-care (emphasizing a healthy body image; being a role model) can benefit their children -- especially their girls -- the desire to seek treatment increases. 

Medical Complications
Older women suffer from many of the same medical issues younger patients do, including electrolyte imbalances (which increase risk of cardiac arrhythmias and sudden death) and endocrine dysfunctions (which can lead to menstrual irregularities, decreased bone mass, increased risk for osteopenia and osteoporosis and a compromised immune system).

As women approach menopause, a decrease in estrogen occurs, which can lead to symptoms such as hot flashes, vaginal dryness, sleep problems and mood swings. Depletion of fat stores in the body exacerbates this decrease in estrogen and causes even more significant menopausal symptoms. Muscle-wasting from excessive dieting can reduce the metabolic rate and speed up the body's natural decline associated with aging.

The Solution is Treatment

Left untreated, severe eating disorders can lead to heart failure or suicide at any age.
Researchers warn that eating disorders can be chronic and relapse is common. However, those who seek early treatment can attain a healthy recovery.

To find an eating-disorder therapist or specialized treatment center, visit or For books about eating-disorder prevention, recovery and treatment, visit

next: Jealousy and Friends: The Life of a 6-Year-Old
3 comments so far | Post a comment now
Fiona Place February 25, 2010, 4:14 PM

It is never to old to either have an eating disorder or to recover from one. The important message is that there is help, there is life after an ED and you can find and treasure an identity shaped by words rather than weight and food.
Fiona Place author of Cardboard: A woman left for dead

Weight Loss Tips March 26, 2010, 5:09 PM

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thyroid symptoms April 16, 2011, 6:06 PM

When you gets old you have all kind of disorder, sigh…

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