Can You Be “Too Old” to Have an Eating Disorder?

Mother hugging her daughter while visiting her in eating disorder treatment

Contributor: Carolina House Team at Carolina House

If you find it hard to imagine that an aging parent or grandparent could be struggling with an eating disorder, that’s because there’s a misconception that only younger people develop these harmful conditions. But not only do older adults suffer from eating disorders, but they also experience concerns that are unique to people age 50 and older.

“Too Old” for an Eating Disorder?

Popular culture would have us believe that only a certain type of person experiences the compulsion to engage in disordered eating behaviors — and that person is typically young, female, and privileged. But these kinds of stereotypes make it that much harder for those who don’t fit into that mold to recognize that they even have an illness. In some cases, those stereotypes and misconceptions can affect the healthcare they receive.

“People fail to recognize that eating disorders can strike people of any age,” Cynthia Bulik, the founding director of the University of North Carolina Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders, told Medical News Today. “They think that people magically grow out of eating disorders when they leave adolescence. Nothing could be farther from the truth.”

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No one is “too old” to struggle with disordered eating behaviors. Some people experience a relapse of eating disorder symptoms as they enter the later stages of their lives, while others may struggle with these compulsions for the first time as older adults. Whether or not these symptoms are new, they can cause significant damage to an individual’s life and body.

How Common Are Eating Disorders in Older Adults?

There are fewer studies on eating disorders among aging adults, but the research that does exist makes it clear that age is not a factor when it comes to who is at risk for developing these conditions. The Psychiatric Times says that 2.6% of women ages 50-64 and 1.8% of women age 65 and older struggle with symptoms of an eating disorder.

International Psychogeriatrics found that, among more than 10 million deaths in the United States over five years, the risk per 100,000 deaths each year of dying because of anorexia nervosa or complications of anorexia nervosa are:

  • 9.05% for women age 55 and older
  • 3.2% for men age 55 and older
  • 10% for individuals ages 55-64
  • 12% for individuals ages 65-74
  • 28% for individuals age 85 and older

The reality is that eating disorders do affect many aging adults, keeping them from living healthy, fulfilling lives.

Potential Risk Factors in Older Adults

Like younger individuals who suffer from these complex illnesses, older adults may struggle with symptoms such as fear of gaining weight, compensatory behaviors, medication misuse to control their body size, and overexercising. However, the driving force behind these compulsions may differ throughout a person’s life.

Elderly woman discussing binge eating disorderWe experience many changes as we grow older, says International Psychogeriatrics, including changes to our bodies and in our relationships with friends and family members. Women in particular battle powerful societal pressure to look thin and youthful for as long as possible, with celebrities like Jennifer Lopez splashed all over the media with headlines reading, “Exactly How Jennifer Lopez Makes 50 Look 30.”

And many older adults experience a loss of control in many areas of their lives — of their bodies as they battle chronic ailments, of where they live depending on their health or economic circumstances, or of who they can spend time with. For some, the compulsion to engage in disordered eating behaviors becomes a way to take back control of their life when they feel that they don’t have control anywhere else.

The Dangers for Older Adults

Although eating disorders can be harmful to anyone regardless of age, they can be especially dangerous for older adults because of the natural aging process. Many older adults face other conditions that the symptoms of an eating disorder can worsen, such as cardiac issues, gastrointestinal problems, and osteoporosis.

“One of the main concerns is that eating disorders take a tremendous toll on just about every bodily system,” Bulik told Medical News Today. “In old age, these body systems are less resilient, to begin with, just because of the aging process, so eating disorders can erode them more quickly and more seriously.”

It is essential for older adults who are struggling with the compulsion to engage in disordered eating behaviors to get professional treatment as soon as possible so that they reduce their risk of experiencing any long-term damaging effects.

Eating disorders can affect a person at any point in their life, but by learning to recognize the signs in aging adults, we can get them the help they need so that they can start living the life they deserve.


References

1. Fragiskos, G. and Dafni, K. (2014). Eating disorders in late life: implications for clinicians. Psychiatric Times. 31(11). Retrieved from https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/eating-disorders/eating-disorders-late-life-implications-clinicians.

2. Lapid, M.; Prom, M.; Burton, C.; McAlpine, D.; Sutor, B.; and Rummans, T. (2010). Eating disorders in the elderly. International Psychogeriatrics. 22(4):523-36. DOI: 10.1017/S1041610210000104.

3. McIntosh, J. (2015). Older people and eating disorders: not ‘just a teenager’s problem.’ Medical News Today. Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/290023.


About the Contributor:

Carolina House BannerCarolina House is an eating disorder treatment center that serves people of all genders, ages 17 and older. Within our residential and outpatient programs, we offer a range of services such as LGBTQ- and male-inclusive programming to help individuals who are struggling with eating disorders and co-occurring mental health conditions. Our treatment connects men and women with the care they need to achieve long-term recovery from eating disorders and other mental health concerns.


The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on May 19, 2020.
Reviewed & Approved on May 19, 2020, by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC

Published on EatingDisorderHope.com

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He is responsible for the operations of Eating Disorder Hope and ensuring that the website is functioning smoothly.