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June 01, 2017

Older Adults and Eating Disorders: 4 Things to Know

Although eating disorders are seen mainly as issues affecting teens and young adults, older adults can develop these disorders, as well — and recent research indicates this problem is increasing in the older population. This is likely occurring, in part, because of cultural standards of what is attractive, typically defined as thin; warnings about the dangers of obesity; and unrealistic body images as portrayed by media.

Some older adults struggling with eating disorders are dealing with a situation they’ve suffered from for a long time; others may have been preoccupied with weight issues before, but cross over into a disorder as an older adult. Here’s more helpful information in case someone you love is showing symptoms.

Types of Disorders and Triggers

Eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder, plus other less common ones, and each can have significant physical and mental health consequences — even life-threatening ones. These psychiatric disorders all have something else in common, too: In each, the affected person has extreme behaviors and feelings that center on weight and food.

One 2012 survey indicated that 13 percent of women aged 50 and up have experienced eating disorder symptoms — and not in the distant past, either. This survey focused on the previous five years. Of these women, 70 percent wanted to lose weight with 62 percent believing their current weight or body shape was having a negative effect on their lives.

Eating disorders often spike during tense times in life. For older adults, this can include increased caretaking — perhaps of an ailing spouse — and deaths of people close to them. Other potential triggers include menopause, natural changes connected to aging, retirement, feeling a need to compete with younger people, an empty nest, becoming a grandparent and divorce, among others. In response, someone may want more control over his or her life, and attempt to gain that through bodily control; in some people, these feelings and subsequent reactions cross over into eating disorders.

Common Symptoms

There is a lengthy list of potential symptoms and not every person with an eating disorder will exhibit all of them. These symptoms include significant weight loss, a preoccupation with food and calories, frequent references to feeling fat, large amounts of food disappearing (indicating binge eating), evidence of purging (including the presence of empty laxative packages), the development of food rituals and much more. You can find an extensive list of potential symptoms here.

Difficulties in Diagnoses

Diagnosing eating disorders in older adults can be especially challenging because they can mimic other conditions common as people age, including taste bud decline and dementia. Medical professionals who work with older adults aren’t necessarily trained to consider eating disorders when patients complain of weakness or dizziness, or show signs of dehydration. Diagnosis is crucial, though, because the treatment is significantly different from other eating challenges that don’t have an emotional or psychological component.

Eating Disorder Treatments

If you suspect that you (or a loved one) have an eating disorder, make an appointment with your primary care physician as soon as possible. It’s important to be honest with the doctor so an accurate diagnosis can be made and treatment plan devised. It is likely that the doctor will recommend a therapist, as well.

Cognitive behavioral therapy can be effective in treating eating disorders. In this treatment, a therapist helps the patient understand that his or her condition is an illness, not a flaw in character. The goal is to shift how the patient views his or her body and to provide education on natural body changes as we age.

Nutrition after 50

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