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Eating Disorders Spike Among Middle-Aged and Older Women

Eating Disorders Spike Among Middle-Aged and Older WomenWhen you hear the term, eating disorder, many people may typically think of a perfectionistic adolescent girl heavily into sports or dance, being raised by an over-controlling parent. By starving herself or binge eating and purging, she is rebelling against the prison of her home.

This disease is devastating to young girls:

  • Anorexia is the third most common chronic illness among adolescents;
  • 95 percent of those who have eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25;
  • 50 percent of girls between the ages of 11 and 13 see themselves as overweight;
  • And 80 percent of 13-year-olds have attempted to lose weight.

However, an increasing number of middle-aged and older women are suffering from eating disorders, as well. It’s really no wonder when you consider our culture’s obsession with thinness and unrealistic bust-waist-hip combinations. You can’t thumb through a magazine without catching sight of a waifish figure or hit the highway without a seeing a perfect body in a bikini sipping a beer.

Statistics may lie about just how many women develop eating disorders later in their lives because the illness often goes undiagnosed by doctors. Weight loss and changes in appetite are common complications of another illness or side effects of certain medications. And physicians certainly aren’t looking for anorexia or bulimia in older age groups.

The Johns Hopkins Mood Disorders Clinic published information about an Australian study that is among the first to investigate poor body image and eating disorders in older women. Karen Swartz, M.D., Director of Clinical Programs at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, writes:

Investigators surveyed a random sample of 475 women ages 60 – 70 about their eating behaviors, weight history, and attitudes toward their bodies. Around 90 percent said they felt very or moderately fat, and 60 percent reported being dissatisfied with their bodies. The majority of women had a body mass index (BMI) of 25, which is considered just slightly overweight, and wanted to have a normal-weight BMI of 23. Over 80 percent of the women made efforts to manage their weight.

Four percent of the women (18 total) met the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder: One had anorexia nervosa, two had bulimia nervosa, and 15 had symptoms of an unspecified eating disorder that did not meet the criteria for anorexia or bulimia. In addition, another 4 percent of the women (21 overall) reported a single symptom of an eating disorder, such as using laxatives, diuretics, or vomiting to lose weight, or binge eating.

Typically, it has been assumed that as women age, these problems become less common, but this study suggests that the desire to be thin never fades. Some of the women may actually be experiencing recurrences of eating disorders they suffered from in their teens, 20s, or 30s. Others may have had continuous problems throughout their lifetimes. And still others may have developed the problems anew in their later years.

Eating Disorders Spike Among Middle-Aged and Older Women

Therese Borchard

Therese J. Borchard is Associate Editor at Psych Central, where she regularly contributes to World of Psychology. She also writes the daily blog, Beyond Blue, on Therese is the author of Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes and The Pocket Therapist. Subscribe to her RSS feed on Psych Central or Beliefnet. Visit her website or follow her on Twitter @thereseborchard.

APA Reference
Borchard, T. (2018). Eating Disorders Spike Among Middle-Aged and Older Women. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
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