Eating disorders are commonly associated with young adults and teenagers, while little attention is given to eating disorders in older adults.
However, eating disorders in older people are more prevalent than one might guess, with a 2012 study reporting that up to 13% of women aged 50 and over have experienced symptoms of eating disorders in the five years prior to the study.
Types of Eating Disorders
Eating disorders can affect people of all ages, genders, and cultural and social backgrounds.
Anorexia Nervosa (AN) is a condition in which a person’s body image is distorted. Individuals go to extreme lengths to prevent weight gain, which can disproportionately affect the health of older people.
Bulimia Nervosa (BN) is an eating disorder characterized by intake of large amounts of food followed by extreme purging, either by vomiting or the use of laxatives, and often originates out of feelings of guilt or shame. Some individuals engage in over-exercise in an attempt to burn the calories consumed during the binge. Health conditions associated with BN include an electrolyte imbalance in the body and problems with the heart, kidneys, and colon. These health problems pose a particularly great risk for older people, as one’s likelihood of developing health disorders increases as a result of the natural aging process.
Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is characterized by excessive food intake. Large intake can result in significant weight gain, which can cause physical health issues due to the weakened muscle and bones strength that comes with aging.
Causes and Risks
Eating disorders, like most other disorders, tend to amplify during periods of heightened tension and stress. Stressors for older adults generally include the loss of friends, a loss of physical functioning, menopause, an empty home, loneliness, retirement, lack of purpose, and/or the onset of age-related illnesses. In response to such stressors, it is common for a person to attempt to regain some control over their life, which for some people may entail a fixation on bodily control, subsequently affecting their relationship with food and potentially causing or triggering an eating disorder.
There are certain risk factors to consider in older people’s mental health that could play a role in the onset or further development of eating disorders and other mental and behavioral health conditions.
One risk factor is body dissatisfaction. Negative body image is a leading factor in the beginning stages of Anorexia Nervosa. In Western countries in particular, there is much focus and emphasis placed on beauty standards, and many individuals aim to achieve cultural ideals like a thin, unblemished, youthful appearance as a means of proving their self-worth. As we age, our youthful appearance naturally declines, which can leave people in despair. This may encourage unhealthy attempts at regaining control over appearance, like starving oneself or binge-eating followed by purging to prevent weight gain .
Body dissatisfaction can make a person feel they are no longer desirable. Add in feelings of loneliness, marital difficulties, and a lack of romance and intimacy, and the likelihood that one’s mental and behavioral health will be impacted increases tremendously.
Signs and Symptoms
Dealing with an eating disorder is difficult for anyone affected. However, age can play a role in one’s outlook. For younger people, there is more often a sense of hope for the future, while older people tend to resign themselves to their situation.
However, resignation is dangerous as it makes a person far less likely to seek treatment. If left unchecked, eating disorders can lead to a multitude of chronic health conditions due to the impact they have on the body’s organs. An older person’s ability to fight disease and recover from health conditions is far less than that of a younger person.
Some of the adverse health conditions that can arise from the aforementioned eating disorders – AN, BN, and BED – include:
- Heart failure.
- Kidney failure.
- Cognitive problems.
For this reason, it is important to become aware of the signs of eating disorders so that you can seek an intervention if you believe that your older loved one is suffering.
Some of the signs to watch out for include:
- Avoiding meals
- Regularly disappearing to the bathroom immediately after a meal
- Avoiding or canceling plans centered on food
- Making frequent negative remarks about aging
- Suddenly losing or gaining weight without explanation Appearing malnourished
- Losing excessive amounts of hair
Some of the above symptoms, like weight and hair loss, can occur naturally as we age, but they shouldn’t automatically be dismissed as being normal. Eating disorders significantly impact the physical and psychological health of older people and can be fatal.
If you believe that your older loved one may be struggling with an eating disorder, it is important to seek help. Effective treatment is available, and timely recovery is best accomplished through an expert intervention.
For more information on treatment, contact Heather R. Hayes & Associates – call 800-335-0316 or email firstname.lastname@example.org today.
 Gagne, D. A., Von Holle, A., Brownley, K. A., Runfola, C. D., Hofmeier, S., Branch, K. E., & Bulik, C. M. (2012). Eating disorder symptoms and weight and shape concerns in a large web‐based convenience sample of women ages 50 and above: Results of the gender and body image (GABI) study. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 45(7), 832-844.
 Yamamotova, Anna et al. “Dissatisfaction with own body makes patients with eating disorders more sensitive to pain.” Journal of pain research vol. 10 1667-1675. 17 Jul. 2017, doi:10.2147/JPR.S133425.
 Nimh.nih.gov. 2018. NIMH » Eating Disorders: About More Than Food. [online] Available at: <https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/eating-disorders/index.shtml> [Accessed 29 May 2020].