Eating disorders have traditionally been thought of as something that primarily affect adolescents and young women, but a recent study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders has revealed new evidence that eating disorders are affecting many more mature women, some for the first time in their life.
According to the study, called the Gender and Body Image Study, up to 13 percent of the women aged 50 years or older who were surveyed struggle with eating disorders.
Lead author Cindy Bulik, the director of the eating disorders program at the University of North Carolina surveyed 1849 women online, a small sample of the 53 million American women who are over the age of 50. Previous studies have shown that mature women had a decreased risk of developing an eating disorder but the results of this new study show otherwise. According to the author, “Many think eating disorders end at age 25. They exist at every age, we’re finding.”
The results are startling. 79 percent of the women respondents said that their size or shape negatively affected their self-perception, 41 percent said they checked their body daily, and 36 percent said they spent at least half of their time over the past 5 years dieting.
In addition, 13.3 percent had active symptoms of eating disorders: 7.5 percent admitted to using diet pills, 7 percent exercised excessively, 2-5 percent used diuretics, 2 percent used laxatives, and 1 percent engaged in vomiting. 8 percent admitted to purging at least once in the past 5 years. The most common eating disorder symptom was binge eating which was found to occur in 3.5 percent of the study participants – a very similar frequency to that found in younger women.
In response to these surprising findings, Bulik said, “The purging number screams out desperation in my mind. It’s an extreme behavior. Even after age 50, they’re desperately trying to control their weight. What really surprised me is that even in the 75-84 age range, they were still endorsing purging.”
Only 28% of the women in the study had previous experience with an eating disorder. This means that over two-thirds were experiencing distorted body image and subsequent desire to control and alter their body through unhealthy means. Bulik theorized that some of this may be due to major life changes such as divorce, the loss of a spouse, or children leaving home as well as societal pressure to remain young and beautiful.
Bulik added, “I think there is such pressure on older women to not look like they’re becoming older. Everything is about looking younger, trying to stay thin and attractive, whether that means surgery or cosmetics or whatever. The pressure to not age is so strong. That leads them down the path of unhealthy eating and diet behaviors.”
Now that there is more awareness that eating disorders don’t discriminate and can significantly affect all populations, including women over the age of 50, the next step, according to Bulik is to create tailored treatment for older people who struggle with eating disorders. But the message is clear; eating disorders can affect anyone at any time in their life.
- Stoller-Conrad, Jessica. Life over 50 can include an eating disorder. NPR. 21 June 2012. Web. 4 March 2013.