Middle Aged Anorexia: Why Now?

Contributed By Staff of Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center

Anorexia nervosa has received its fair share of media attention over the years. Therefore, if asked, most Americans today could probably provide a reasonable definition of what this disease entails. At the very least, they might say it is a food-related condition in which females become extremely skinny. Those truly in the know might identify it as a serious medical illness. If asked who gets this illness, the vast majority of these people would probably claim it is teenage girls. Although they would be correct in the sense that the average age of onset is 14, they would join the millions upon millions of people who believe that it is only young girls who are on the receiving end of this devastating disease. And they would be wrong.

In years past, experts believed eating disorders rarely, if ever, occurred after the age of 35; we now know anorexia occurs across the lifespan, in girls and women, boys and men. In fact, behavioral health professionals report that in the past decade, they are treating an increasing number of women in their 30s, 40s and 50s who are starving themselves. Additionally, these women are abusing laxatives, exercising to dangerous extremes and self-harming behaviors that frequently co-occur.

Women seeking treatment for an eating disorder typically fall into one of three categories: those who have secretly struggled with an eating disorder for many years yet did not receive help; those who were treated for an eating disorder in younger years; and those who developed an eating disorder as an adult.

Naturally, the most commonly asked question from friends or relatives of an older woman with anorexia is, Why now? Shouldn’t middle age be characterized by a degree of peace and contentment with life? As so often, what should be the case, so rarely is the case.

Anorexia is often triggered by difficult or unforeseen life transitions such as an unexpected death, severe trauma, chronic and subtle trauma, family relocation or entering college. And so it goes with women in mid-life. Unexpected transitions, especially in relationships, are thought to trigger the onset, re-appearance or escalation of a midlife eating disorder. These catalysts can include:

Empty Nest

The act of children leaving home to go to college or simply gain independence is often very hard on a woman. This is particularly true if she is primarily defined by being a mother and caretaker. When children leave home, she may feel her value and identity have vanished. In the absence of other life pursuits, she may focus her attention on her appearance, diets, health, and exercise to fill that void and create a new self. The commensurate weight loss can also serve as a way to garner attention from a husband or family members.

Parent’s Illness or Death
Most adults will experience the death of at least one parent. Yet, knowing this and actually living through it are two different things. Sometimes a woman is simply not prepared for such an eventuality and is unable to cope. The physical debilitation of an eating disorder may allow a woman to remain dependent on others and/or maintain some sense of control when she feels powerless over other things.

Abnormal Reaction to the Normal Process of Aging
Not only is the American culture obsessed with youth, it is extremely unforgiving when a woman dares to look her age. Recently, Hillary Clinton was the subject of many news reports. Was it due to her role as Secretary of State? No, media pundits far and wide were talking about her because she showed up at professional engagements in foreign countries with her hair un-coiffed, no makeup, and glasses, instead of contacts. Is it any wonder millions of American women flock to plastic surgeons everyday for, at the least, Botox injections and fillers, or at the extreme, a complete facelift? A woman’s rush to a surgeon’s office is only hastened if her identity and self-esteem is wrapped up in her appearance. Remaining rail-thin is part of this need for perfection. She could easily embark on anorexic behaviors, which could feasibly lead her down the path to a life-threatening disorder.

Even if a break up is amicable and by choice, divorce or separation from a spouse is a difficult transition time for a woman. She may struggle with issues of dependency or fears of being alone. Her self-esteem may grow fragile, especially when she considers being alone or having to return to the world of dating where men her age are attracted to younger women. She may become inordinately focused on her appearance, and in turn, may rely on extreme measures to lose weight. Such dieting could easily get out of control and result in real addiction, providing a sense of purpose, power and control. Not unlike divorce or separation, a new marriage is a time of tremendous change, especially if it necessitates blending two families. In this entirely new family system, a woman’s stress could lead to a disorder with food. She also might control her food intake in order to look good for her wedding new husband.

In today’s economy, layoffs are more common than not. Losing a job in your 40s can be devastating. An unemployed woman has not only lost her role, but she must re-enter the labor force at what she perceives to be a distinct disadvantage. The competition is young, vibrant, and costs less. Although she cannot turn back the clock, she can strive to appear more youthful. Weight loss is often part of this strategy. She may see starving herself as the only recourse. If obtaining a new job proves difficult, she may cling to continued weight loss as the one thing she is really good at. This is full-blown anorexia waiting to happen.

Traumatic Illness

Diseases such as breast cancer afflict many women in middle age. This can result in a profoundly impaired body image and difficulty accepting an altered shape. She may turn to extraordinary weight loss to reshape her body in a way she thinks is pleasing to the eye, and to regain a sense of control over her body.

Death of a Child
Losing a child is arguably the most devastating event that could ever happen to a woman. It could result in such intense despair that a woman may truly want to die. This is where self-starvation is a plea for help, a way to relieve the pain, a way to seemingly regain control, or a form of indirect suicide.

Residential Treatment for Anorexia
Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center has experienced a steady rise in middle-aged residents with eating disorders. Although these women share the same illness as many younger residents, their therapeutic needs are unique. The adult lodges on the Timberline Knolls campus offer programming to their specific needs. Specialized groups facilitate growth and healing and help these older women move toward a life free from the grips of anorexia. For more information, call 877.257.9611 or visit www.timberlineknolls.com today.

Published Date: June 12, 2012
Last reviewed: By Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on June 12, 2012
Page last updated: September 19, 2012

Article Contributed by our Sponsor ~ Timberline Knolls Treatment Center
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com, Eating Disorders Help