The Aging of Eating Disorders: Middle-aged Women Fight the Devastating Disease

art-therapyContributed Article by: Dr. Kim Dennis, CEDS, CEO/Medical Director Emeritus of Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center

The High Mortality Rates Associated with Eating Disorders

With a mortality rate higher than any other mental illness, including depression, eating disorder awareness ought to pervade society and the medical community alike. Sadly, they don’t.

While you might be hard-pressed to find anyone unfamiliar with the HIV/AIDS awareness campaign, eating disorders are not a front-runner for awareness, research, treatment or recovery dollars. Even though each year eating disorders affect 20 times more Americans than HIV/AIDS, for every $20,000 spent on HIV/AIDS research, only $1 is spent on eating disorder research.

A Commonly Misunderstood Disease

This may be due in part to the commonly misunderstood and underestimated characteristics of eating disorders. While adolescent girls and fashion models are typically viewed as the poster girls for eating disorders, in reality, they have plenty of company.

Eating disorders are equal-opportunity offenders-pervading economic and cultural boundaries and leaping the borders of age and gender. Eating disorders are treatable diseases, and full recovery is possible. However, without adequate treatment and support, the journey to get there can be excruciatingly long and arduous, fraught with setbacks, and impossible to accomplish alone.

Increasing Occurrence in Older Women

Over the past 5-10 years, we have been seeing a growing number of older women seeking treatment for eating disorders. It is difficult, if not impossible, to accurately estimate how many women struggle with mid-life eating disorders.

According to information from the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders(ANAD), it is important to remember the ability to quantify figures can be challenging, particularly because individuals struggling with an eating disorder are often in denial about their illness, and hospitalizations frequently focus on the physical consequences of the disease, rather than the illness itself.

The True Stats Behind Who Has an Eating Disorder

According to a 2006 study conducted by Austrian researchers, even women in their 60s were unhappy with their weight and body shape, and a small percentage suffered from full-blown eating disorders. The researchers found that among 475 women 60 to 70 years old, 60 percent said they were dissatisfied with their bodies and 4 percent met the criteria for an eating disorder diagnosis.

While many things can trigger eating disorders, research has shown that heredity and genetics can make some people more susceptible. Although the Eating Disorders Coalition reports that 50 to 80 percent of eating disorder risk is genetically linked, genetics alone aren’t destiny. The disease of addiction plays out in the relationship with food and body for people with eating disorders.

Three Categories Identify Older Women with Eating Disorders

There are three main categories of older women with eating disorders:

  • Women who have secretly struggled with an eating disorder for years without seeking treatment (many of whom have received treatment for substance abuse)
  • Women treated when they were younger for an eating disorder that has now reoccurred
  • Women who first develop an eating disorder as an adult.

At any age, an eating disorder stems from deep insecurity and an overwhelming fear of being out of control. Compulsive food management, whether it’s extreme dieting, purging, or binging, provides people with eating disorders an emotional “fix,” a sense of power and control; but only until the next crisis comes crashing down or up (internal, deeply buried emotional memory).

Origins of Eating Disorders

There is usually a collection of stress factors that commonly occur in midlife as powerful catalysts for the onset-or reemergence- of eating disorders in later-life, that include:

  • Relationship problems
  • Divorce
  • Parenting troubles
  • Death of a parent
  • Career difficulties
  • Financial strain
  • Empty-nest syndrome
  • Emotional and physiological changes brought on by menopause
  • Fears associated with aging
  • Desires to look younger and slimmer than your age may allow

As shown above, environmental factors, society’s emphasis on appearance and idealization of thinness, and stressful, traumatic or disruptive life events are all triggers, and if there is a genetic predisposition, the odds are not in your favor. Fortunately, to address the increase in the numbers of older women seeking treatment, eating disorder facilities are beginning to develop counseling and treatment specifically geared toward this population’s needs.

At Timberline Knolls, we have recently opened Pine Lodge, a residence for adult women with special programming designed exclusively for an older age group.

Accepting Yourself at Any Age

Regardless of age, for someone with an eating disorder, the inner voices of anorexia, bulimia and compulsive overeating shout that self worth is measured by physical appearance and self-worth is always zero (or less).

Yet the truth is that happiness and self-esteem are inside jobs which stem from loving and accepting yourself for who you truly are and taking esteem-able actions. That’s only possible with lifelong recovery in the context of an abundantly supportive, ever-present recovery community.

About the Author:

Kim Dennis ImageDrKim Dennis is a board-certified psychiatrist who specializes in eating disorder treatment, addiction recovery, trauma / PTSD and co-occurring disorders. As CEO/Medical Director Emeritus, she provides consultation to the clinical director and participates in the Timberline Knolls Clinical Development Institute and other outreach initiatives. Dr. Dennis maintains a holistic perspective in the practice of psychiatry.  She incorporates biological, psycho-social and spiritual approaches into individually-tailored treatment plans. Dr. Dennis is published in the areas of gender differences in the development of psychopathology, co-occurring eating disorders and self-injury, and the use of medication with family-based therapy for adolescents with anorexia nervosa. Dr. Dennis received her undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago. She obtained her medical degree from the University Of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine and completed her psychiatry residency training at the University Of Chicago Hospitals, where she served as chief resident. During her training, she was part of the multi-disciplinary eating disorders team specializing in treating adolescents with anorexia and bulimia and their families. She is a member of the American Medical Association, Academy for Eating Disorders, the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry and the American Society for Addiction Medicine.  She is on the medical advisory board for the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.

Published Date: July 25, 2016
Last reviewed: By Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on June 6th, 2014

Article Contributed by our Sponsor ~ Timberline Knolls Treatment Center

Page last updated: June 6, 2014
Published on, Eating Disorder Information Website