Eating Disorders in Midlife

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When thinking of eating disorders the stereotypical image of young, slender teenagers springs to mind for many. But conditions like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder can strike in people of any size and age, including midlife. 

As the pandemic ravaged routines and rituals, it also disrupted many peoples’ eating behaviors. When COVID-19 struck the U.S., the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline saw a more than 40% increase in usage.

The overall prevalence of eating disorders in people older than age 40 is around 3.5% in women and 1% to 2% in men. However, exact numbers remain unknown because midlife people are underrepresented in research on eating disorders.

People at highest risk for developing an eating disorder at midlife are those who experienced an eating disorder or disordered eating at younger ages. On the other hand, adult men and women without a history of eating disorders can also present with them, typically after big life changes. In either case, these illnesses can not only threaten an individual’s health but also bring distress, shame, and secrecy that threaten their relationships.

Many variations of eating disorders are possible, but 3 types dominate: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. Anorexia becomes less common after age 26, but bulimia rates don’t drop until age 47. Meanwhile, binge eating disorder can continue to be a problem for women in their 70s.

The importance of body image seems to be a key feature that makes women either return to or start an eating disorder. With aging, many women are also disturbed by the lack of control over the ways their body is changing.

How can you spot an eating disorder?

  1. Dramatic weight fluctuations, whether up or down
  2. Preoccupation with weight, calories, body size & shape
  3. Refusal to eat certain foods or food groups
  4. Excessive exercising
  5. Skipping meals or eating tiny portions
  6. Signs of purging behaviors
  7. Lots of empty food wrappers or containers in short amount of time

Anytime these thoughts and behaviors are taking over your life, it’s a sign to seek help. 

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