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July 17, 2018

Baby Boomers and Eating Disorders: The Rise of Disordered Eating at Midlife and Beyond

No age or gender is immune to eating disorders. Eating disorders can flare up repeatedly throughout a person’s life, or even make a first-time appearance at middle age. In fact, at Veritas Collaborative, we are seeing an increase in people at midlife and beyond seeking treatment for disordered eating.

It’s a trend being seen across the nation by our colleagues at treatment centers that dispels the harmful stereotype that disordered eating affects only teenaged women. This stereotype is so prevalent, even some health care providers continue to think older adults can’t develop eating disorders.

We have also heard stories of people who, as they reach midlife or beyond, are being told by their health care providers that they should have “grown out of” their eating disorder, or that they are “too old” to present with disordered eating. Nothing could be further from the truth. The eating disorder symptoms remain present and have an equally devastating impact on the person’s life, no matter what their age.

It’s only been in recent years that eating disorder research has included baby boomers. One study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders in 2012 suggests that baby boomers have eating disorders at the same rate as teenagers (4 percent), and an additional 13 percent of women over 50 engage in at least one eating-disorder behavior such as binge eating, excessive exercise, or purging behaviors.

An article in the Current Opinion in Psychiatry states the overall prevalence of eating disorders is around 3.5 percent in women over age 40, and around 1 to 2 percent in older men. Very unfortunately, the majority of these adults are not in treatment.

The takeaway from these findings is proof that eating disorders do not have age limits. And while the symptoms of disordered eating aren’t markedly different across the age spectrum, it’s critical to understand what triggers these conditions at different life stages and how they can affect our health.

Triggers for eating disorders in older adults

Many older adults have struggled with an eating disorder since they were young and have never sought treatment. Others may have a midlife relapse of a dormant disorder. Still, others do develop an eating disorder for the first time later in life, often triggered by events and transitions more common at this stage, including:

  • Divorce
  • Menopause
  • Infidelity
  • Natural signs of aging
  • Death of a loved one
  • Retirement
  • Empty nest
  • A child’s marriage
  • Aging parents
  • Financial pressures
  • Illness

Older adults with eating disorders often see the disease through a different lens than younger people. For example, while younger adults, or even children and adolescents, may feel hopeful about what their future may hold in recovery, older individuals may resign themselves to the disease and other related health issues as just another part of aging.

How disordered eating affects baby boomers

An eating disorder has a tremendous impact on virtually every organ system of the body. As we age, these systems become less resilient, and an array of chronic conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease, or osteoporosis can develop. An eating disorder only exacerbates these conditions—and causes others. For example:

  • Anorexia can lead to anemia, osteoporosis, kidney issues, and heart problems such as arrhythmias or heart failure
  • Purging behaviors deplete the body of electrolytes, which can lead to arrhythmias and heart failure
  • Both malnutrition and purging can cause pancreatitis
  • Food restriction or purging by vomiting can lead to gastroparesis (slowed digestion) which, in turn, can lead to a host of painful and even life-threatening conditions
  • Fasting or self-starvation can deprive the brain of the energy it needs, leading to cognitive problems

Most dire is the mortality rate among older adults with disordered eating. While there’s considerable variation between the few studies on this topic, the bottom line is that an eating disorder in those of us who are older can be much more fatal for a body already in decline.

Identifying eating disorders in older adults

Based on Veritas’ experience in working with older patients, we share some observations about how to help identify eating disorders as we age—whether you are a health care provider or family member:

  • Baby boomers with disordered eating often hide in plain sight because of the myth that eating disorders cause extreme thinness.
  • Don’t automatically dismiss weight loss or gain, malnutrition, excessive hair loss, dental damage, or sensitivity to cold as a “normal” part of aging or some other medical condition.
  • Pay attention to behavioral changes. For example, if someone starts disappearing after a meal or uses the bathroom immediately after eating, it could be a sign of purging. Or if someone who has always been outgoing starts canceling plans or avoiding social situations centered on food, it could be a sign of anorexia.
  • Be alert to disordered eating behaviors in older adults who’ve been told to lose weight for medical reasons, have undergone bariatric surgery, are prescribed medication that may cause weight gain, or are unable to exercise because of an injury or illness.
  • Eating disorders often occur along with depression or other types of anxiety disorders, which may be triggered by menopause or other changes brought on by aging.
  • Know that baby boomers who make negative remarks about aging have higher rates of disordered eating than those who only disparage weight.

At any age, but especially at later stages in life, denying or ignoring an eating disorder can have disastrous and potentially life-threatening consequences. Don’t expect an eating disorder to go away on its own. It’s never “just a phase” that someone can “grow out of.”

These complex conditions need specialized treatment from qualified professionals and a multifaceted treatment approach that encompasses nutritional therapy, medical care, and cognitive/behavioral therapy.

Ignore the stereotypes. If you see symptoms that could indicate a dysfunctional eating behavior, do not ignore them and seek advice from a professional who can provide talking points and guidance. It could be the critical starting point for recovery.

At Veritas, we tailor our care to patients’ unique needs, providing a forum for people at a similar place in their lives so they can better relate to one another. Our programs are structured to ensure the highest quality of care possible–at every age.

We want baby boomers to know that recovery is possible. It’s never too late, and you’re never too old, to access best-practice care that offers hope for a cure.

Learn more about our Adult Program, here.