By On January 10th, 2018

Older adults with eating disorders continue to be overlooked

The latest estimates suggest that approximately 30 million Americans live with an eating disorder at any given time. Thanks to stereotypes and misrepresentation in the media, most people would assume that almost all of those 30 million Americans are young women. However, that isn’t entirely accurate.

In fact, people of any age can develop or live with an eating disorder. This includes an estimated 13 percent of women over the age of 50. Many believe the number may be even higher.

Because there is less awareness for how eating disorders can affect older adults, people over the age of 50 are significantly less likely to receive treatment for an eating disorder and may not even recognize or admit to having an eating disorder.

Thankfully, this is gradually changing. Most eating disorder treatment centers are seeing a sizable increase in the number of older adults seeking help or treatment. Still, there are many adults out there living in silence with their eating disorder because of stigma, embarrassment, and lack of awareness.

What triggers eating disorders in adults?

While eating disorders look largely the same among people of different ages, there are subtle changes in the forces contributing to the development of disordered eating.

The pressures of aging or perceived loss of status in a youth-oriented world can compound other life-stresses which may make someone more likely to develop an eating disorder. Additionally, natural body changes can make some more aware of or hyper-critical of their self-image.

As New York-based eating disorder specialist Kimberly Hershenson recently explained to Healthline:

“Life is full of transitory periods, especially as you get older, and this has an impact on eating behavior and body image. Usually, when somebody has struggled with an eating disorder as an adolescent, they’re predisposed to relapse later in life. It’s not as common to have a healthy relationship with food your entire life to then develop an eating disorder at midlife — although that does happen.”

Hershenson also noted that feeling a loss of control can also contribute to eating disorders.

“It’s really an unhealthy coping mechanism that develops when a person has trouble dealing with life on life’s terms,” Hershenson said.

Treatment may be harder for older women

Another unique issue for older adults with eating disorders is treatment. Most treatments have been developed with younger people in mind, and may not necessarily be suited for older adults. Similarly, older individuals may have difficulties finding time to properly commit to treatment.

“My experience is that due to the pressures of career, family, financial resources, and home life, older women may have a more difficult time carving out time for treatment and making it a priority. Also, they may have more difficulty with self-care and self-compassion. Also, later in life, the behaviors become more habitual and may be more difficult to break,” explained Dena Cabrera, PsyD, CEDS, and executive clinical director of Rosewood Centers for Eating Disorders in Arizona.

Hershenson also noted that older women may face more difficulty in the recovery process.

“When you’re younger, your body can withstand more,” said Hershenson. “Restricting and purging have a greater effect when you’re older, and you’re not able to bounce back as quickly.”

What do you do if you develop an adult eating disorder?

The most important thing an older adult with an eating disorder can know is that help is available and there is no need to feel ashamed.

“It is not about willpower or lack of commitment that they are unable to get better on their own. Eating disorders are an illness. Help, support, and healing are available,” advises Cabrera.

“Don’t blame yourself if you have an eating disorder. This is just your way of coping. You can find healthier ways to cope. Know you are not alone. There are support groups around the country, in the community, and online. You don’t have to live like this forever. There is a way out, but it will take work and time,” Hershonson recommends.

“This is probably the best piece of advice I can give. You need to think of you and your eating disorder as two separate entities,” she added. “The ‘true you’ probably wants to have friends and be sociable and eat well and take care of yourself. But your eating disorder brain takes over. Really try to recognize that you are not your eating disorder. Verbalize that your eating disorder is telling you that you don’t deserve to eat, or that you need to run, but you don’t need to do that.”

If you or someone you love are living with an eating disorder, give Brookhaven a call at (888) 298-4673. We can answer any questions you have and help you find the best treatment plan for you. 

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