Eating Disorders Impact Older Adult Women, Too

By Hugh C. McBride

When Sorelle Marsh describes her struggles with bulimia, the specifics of her story sound relatively common. Once a self-described "chubby kid," Marsh discovered bulimia in college, began forcing herself to vomit in order to control her weight, and eventually had to enter a treatment facility in order to overcome her eating disorder.

But one aspect of her account is likely to surprise a number of people: By the time Marsh finally got the help she needed to beat bulimia, she was 41 years old, married, and the mother of two children, and had been bingeing and purging for more than two decades.

Even more surprising is that cases like hers really aren't that rare after all.

Not an Uncommon Occurrence
Experts estimate that between one and three million adult women suffer from anorexia or bulimia, and that 10 percent of all eating disorder patients are over the age of 40.

A July 27, 2007 article on the CNN website provided facility-specific statistics to support this claim:

  • In 2003, Park Nicollet Health Services' Eating Disorders Institute (in St. Louis Park, Minneapolis) treated 43 patients ages 38 and older. In the first six months of 2007, the institute treated nearly 500 patients 38 and older - about 35 percent of its total patient population.
  • The Renfrew Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (where Sorelle Marsh was treated), experienced a steady increase in the percentage of patients 30 and older, peaking at more than 100 patients in 2005.
To Lynn Ginsburg, a freelance writer who suffered from an eating disorder that lasted from her teens through her 40s, increasing awareness of the fact that disordered eating isn't just a "teen's disease" may have a significant impact on the manner in which these conditions are both experienced and treated.

"This new definition of eating disorders as a condition that can affect any woman at any age may come as a huge relief to the leagues of older women who thought they were all alone, suffering from a disorder they should have outgrown," Ginsburg wrote in an article on the Yoga & Mental Health website.

"The good news?" she continued. "When it comes time for treatment, older women bring a mature perspective on life and a resourcefulness to the process that younger women don't yet possess."

A Variety of Causes
The Mayo Clinic reports that adult women who are suffering from eating disorders typically belong to one of three groups:

  • Women who struggled with the disorder for many years (as Sorelle Marsh did) before seeking treatment.
  • Women who overcame disordered eating conditions when they were younger, only to suffer relapses later in life.
  • Women who first develop an eating disorder when they are adults.
The nonprofit organization ANRED (Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders, Inc.) cites the following influences on the development of eating disorders among older women:

Body dissatisfaction and despair - As many women age, they struggle with the realization that their bodies no longer fit the "cultural ideal" of youth and beauty. Some of these individuals develop eating disorders from misguided attempts to either punish or improve themselves.

Unhealthy lifestyles - Professional success and the aging process often conspire against individuals who previously ate well and exercised often. Leading a more sedentary lifestyle and eating more calorie-rich foods leads to weight gains that may result in feelings of disappointment, disgust, or self-loathing. These emotions are prime precursors to disordered eating.

Higher stress levels - Middle-aged women are likely to be faced with a number of personal and professional stresses, including raising children, caring for aging parents, economic worries, and concerns about retirement. Some people deal with stress by overeating, while others attempt to control their lives by placing unhealthy restrictions on their diet.

Loneliness - Marital difficulties, the death of a spouse, divorce, fading levels of intimacy, the "empty nest" that results from children growing and moving away, and other losses can cause feelings of isolation and abandonment. Some women overeat out of boredom or an attempt to comfort themselves; resultant weight gains may prompt unhealthy emotions that can lead to the development of an eating disorder.

Help Is Available
Regardless of when a woman first experiences an eating disorder or how long she struggles with the condition before seeking help, effective professional treatment is available. Women who have been suffering from anorexia, bulimia, or another eating disorder for years may require hospitalization or a stay in a residential treatment facility for women with eating disorders, while others may respond to outpatient therapy and participation in an ongoing support group.

The most important thing to know is that help is available, recovery is possible, and a healthier and happier life is within reach. As Sorelle Marsh recalled during her Feb. 7, 2005 interview with MSNBC, the results can be life-changing and personally empowering.

"If I'm angry [now], I say I'm angry," Marsh said. "If I'm hurt, I say I'm hurt. But I do not deny myself of my feelings."