Although the term “eating disorder” is traditionally associated with behaviors of teenagers and young adults, new research suggests it also pertains to middle-age and older women.
Researchers say age is not a barrier to eating disorders, as behaviors such as binge eating and purging occur among women aged 50 and over.
Cynthia Bulik, Director of the University of North Carolina Eating Disorders Program, surveyed 1,849 women from across the U.S. She discovered that among women aged 50 and over that 3.5 percent report binge eating, nearly 8 percent report purging, and more than 70 percent are trying to lose weight.
Strikingly, researchers discovered that 62 percent of women claimed that their weight or shape negatively impacted on their life.
Findings from the study are published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.
“We know very little about how women aged 50 and above feel about their bodies,” said Bulik.
“An unfortunate assumption is that they ‘grow out of’ body dissatisfaction and eating disorders, but no one has really bothered to ask. Since most research focuses on younger women, our goal was to capture the concerns of women in this age range to inform future research and service planning.”
In the study, the average age of the participants was 59 with the vast majority being white women (92 percent). Twenty-seven percent were obese, 29 percent were overweight, 42 percent were normal weight and 2 percent were underweight.
Investigators discovered that eating disorder symptoms were common. About 8 percent of women reported purging in the last five years and 3.5 percent reported binge eating in the last month. These behaviors were most prevalent in women in their early 50s, but also occurred in women over 75.
The quest to lose weight is a dominating life theme for many women. Researchers discovered 36 percent of women report spending at least half their time in the last five years dieting.
Forty-one percent stated that they checked their body daily and 40 percent weighed themselves a couple of times a week or more.
An individual’s weight or body image appears to influence the way in which a woman perceives self-worth. Investigators discovered 62 percent of women claimed that their weight or shape negatively impacted their life, 79 percent said that it affected their self-perception and 64 percent said that they thought about it daily.
In a quest for weight control, some women resort to a variety of unhealthy methods. Researchers discovered 7.5 percent of surveyed women use diet pills, 7 percent report excessive exercise, 2.5 percent turn to diuretics, 2 percent use laxatives and 1 percent are bulimic.
From the survey, researchers learned that two-thirds of American women over the age of 50 were unhappy with their overall appearance. Specifically, 84 percent of women were unhappy with their stomach and 73 percent with their overall shape.
“The bottom line is that eating disorders and weight and shape concerns don’t discriminate on the basis of age,” concluded Bulik.
“Health care providers should remain alert for eating disorder symptoms and weight and shape concerns that may adversely influence women’s physical and psychological wellbeing as they mature.”