Contributor: Staff at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center
When we think of eating disorders, we often picture teen girls and young women. While this is usually the demographic most affected by eating disorders, it is important to remember that women of all ages can experience symptoms of these diseases.
Women go through several physical, mental, and environmental changes as they age that can put them at risk for developing an eating disorder. The exact prevalence of eating disorders in older women isn’t entirely known. Because of the stigma that eating disorders affect teenagers, older women may suffer in silence for years without help.
Body Changes and Eating Disorders
Women of all ages can feel pressure from society to look their best. Older celebrities may have help from plastic surgeons, stylists, and airbrushing, giving an unrealistic view of the aging body. Older women can be affected by these standards just like teenage girls.
The aging body comes with a lot of physical changes. While these changes are natural, they can be difficult for women to accept, especially when so many feel younger than their actual age. One study found that half of those in their late 60s and early 70s felt at least 10 to 20 years younger than their actual age .
When so many women feel stuck in a body that does not reflect their age, they are at risk for developing body dysmorphia and eating disorder symptoms.
Psychiatrist Anne E. Becker examines the challenges middle-aged and older individuals face when they believe that they should look younger than they are. “That, combined with health concerns about obesity, can make people feel bad about their bodies and, in turn, could result in eating strategies that undermine well-being,” said Becker .
Life Stressors and Eating Disorders
As we get older, we continue to face new challenges in life. For older women, this might include the loss of a partner, friend, or family member. Along with loss, retirement, divorce, having an empty nest, and other life changes can leave women grieving and struggling to maintain their emotional well-being.
Mourning can result in decreased appetite, restricting food, or bingeing to cope with negative feelings. Depression is one of the most common mental health conditions older individuals struggle with, often resulting in loss of appetite.  If these symptoms persist, they could lead to an eating disorder like anorexia, bulimia, or binge-eating disorder.
Older women are also more likely to live alone than younger women and teens. This can lead to social isolation that can cause changes in appetite and decreased food intake. Their symptoms may also more likely go unnoticed, and treatment can be further delayed without a strong support system available.
Medical Illnesses and Eating Disorders
As we age, we’re more prone to physical illnesses that can increase the risk of developing eating problems. Illnesses can also mask the symptoms of eating disorders, making it more challenging to receive a proper diagnosis.
Older individuals may avoid eating to prevent symptoms of medical conditions, or they may fear that certain foods will result in a heart attack or stroke. Others may have problems with weakened or lost teeth, issues with the fit of dentures, and other dental concerns that may make eating painful. This can result in a restricted diet or food avoidance, which can cause dramatic weight loss and undernourishment.
Older women may be more likely to be taking medication for illnesses or preventive measures that may influence their mood and appetite. Medications can also result in unwanted side effects, especially involving digestion and the stomach. This can have an impact on diet and eating patterns as well.
If a woman develops an eating disorder, these symptoms can worsen the medical condition and lead to further concerns, such as osteoporosis, arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat), or stomach ruptures from forced vomiting. This is why it’s important to recognize eating disorder symptoms in older individuals so that they can receive proper treatment.
By understanding that there is no age limit for eating disorder symptoms, women may feel more comfortable discussing their symptoms and asking for the help they need.
References: Harvard Women’s Health Watch (2012, February). Disordered eating in midlife and beyond. Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/womens-health/disordered-eating-in-midlife-and-beyond
 Landi, F.; Calvani, R.; Tosato, M.; Martone, A. M.; Ortolani, E.; Savera, G.; Sisto, A.; and Marzetti, E. (2016). Anorexia of Aging: Risk Factors, Consequences, and Potential Treatments. Nutrients, 8(2), 69. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu8020069
About Our Sponsor:
At Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center, outside of Chicago, Illinois, we provide specialty care for women and adolescent girls who are living with eating disorders, substance use disorders, and mental health concerns. Our residential treatment and partial hospitalization programming (PHP) help our residents achieve lifelong recovery by combining clinically excellent treatment with spiritual and emotional growth. We provide care that is holistic, personalized, and nurturing, empowering women to be active participants in their wellness journeys.
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 April 13, 2021, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on April 13, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC