Eating Disorders in Midlife

Once considered a young woman's disease, eating disorders are now affecting women in midlife. Surprisingly, men are also increasingly subject to this debilitating illness.

Once considered a young woman’s disease, eating disorders are on the rise for women and men over 50.  Let’s look at Jerry.  First his mother died.  Three months later, his father died.  After the loss of his parents, Jerry turned 50.  Jerry’s solution to his grief and newfound concerns with his own mortality was to get fit.

First he lost the 25 pounds he had gained over the last decade.  But he didn’t stop there.  He continued to diet.  His exercise routine, which had consisted of cycling and weight lifting, became excessive.  Jerry became gaunt.  His friends and family expressed their concern to Jerry—but to no avail.  He thought he looked great. 

His wife commented to a friend, “All he talks about now is exercise and dieting.”  Quiet for a moment she sadly added, “Talking with him has become kind of boring.”

More than 10 million Americans suffer from some form of an eating disorder as reported by the National Eating Disorders Association.  For middle-aged women with eating disorders, there has been an increase of 42 percent from 2001 to 2010. 

For these women—and men like Jerry—many of them are facing eating disorders, with their associated bingeing, purging, exercising for hours or not eating enough, for the first time in their lives. 

Indeed some symptoms of eating disorders, at any age, include damage to the heart and heart muscles and a potential depletion of fat stores in the brain which impact cognitive and neurological functioning.  However, while eating disorders damage the health of young people, they may take an even greater toll on those 50 and over.

Many of the psychological issues that lead a middle-aged adult to an eating disorder can often be the same for men and women.  Some of the trigger factors are a parent’s illness or death (as in Jerry’s case), separation, divorce, being back in the dating scene, unemployment or a serious illness.

In addition, as they age, men and women also feel pressure from society to keep their bodies looking young.  But often these goals are unrealistic. As Pamela Keel, Ph.D., a professor and clinical psychologist who specializes in treating eating disorders at Florida State University, in Tallahassee said, “Part of that is ’70 is the new 50.’  We have to keep our body looking 20 years younger than it actually is…”

So what’s the solution?  As hard as it is – and its really hard – it’s important to not focus on media images with their unrealistic, thin images and six-pack abs.  The best place for an individual’s focus – man or woman – is on the people they love and the things they love to do.

For more information, I can be reached at 203-539-1255 or drlaurel@drlschwartz.com or at my website.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Glenn Wolff, LCSW January 25, 2013 at 05:17 AM
Thank you Dr. Schwartz for spotlighting this emerging problem in middle age men and women.


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