Eating Disorders Are No Longer a Disease of the Young

Eating Disorders Are No Longer a Disease of the Young

Samantha Hicks, MA, LCPC, CADC, Assistant Director of Clinical Services

Consider what you know about anorexia and bulimia. Your knowledge is probably quite vast, as is the case with most professionals in the behavioral health field.

But what about the public? Unless a family member or close friend is stricken with one or both of these diseases, the odds have it that average people know very little about eating disorders.

By and large, the public knows little regarding the real truth behind these illnesses. Perhaps one of the greatest myths is that they are diseases of the young. Not so.  A recent article in the New York Times labeled eating disorders (EDs) in middle-aged women as an “overlooked crisis” in our country today. 

Females in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and even 70s, are struggling with anorexia and bulimia at an alarming rate.  Most of these women have a history of chronic dieting, compulsive exercise and involvement in extreme weight-loss regimens. They came of age in America during the onset of fad dieting, and outrageously thin models and celebrities. They discovered early on that thinness was the key to success in all areas.

Just as with their younger counterparts, middle-aged people embrace EDs as a way to cope with painful emotions and regain control in their lives. Some of them have experienced pregnancy that altered their bodies in some fashion. Some are moving through menopause, which radically effects hormones and frequently involves weight gain. They may be feeling old, and possibly, irrelevant. Through these life changes and potentially experiencing a traumatic event then leads to the ED taking center stage.

When these life changes or traumatic events happen, the easiest thing for a woman to do is to return to coping strategies that worked in the past. If weight loss transpires and she receives many validating and reinforcing compliments on her new slim appearance this further reinforces these unhealthy coping strategies. 

Unfortunately, the medical consequences of EDs in younger woman effect older women as well. Compromised nutrition can result in a host of issues including cardiac disease and digestive problems like gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. The skeletal system is negatively impacted as well, leading to broken teeth and brittle bones that can lead to bone fractures. 

And yet, these EDs often go undiagnosed. Even a lot of the medical community continues to perceive these diseases as confined to young, financially secure, white females.

If you, or someone you know, are struggling with an unhealthy relationship with food or exercise, please do not buy into the ED myth. Instead, get the help you need to regain health and live a happy, productive life.