When most people think of eating disorders, the image that comes to mind is a teenage girl or young woman who has starved herself thin due to a distorted body image.
In reality, more than 10 million American from all walks of life suffer from eating disorders that include anorexia, bulimia and binge eating. According to a recent article in The New York Times, a surprising percentage of people with eating disorders are women in mid-life or older.
Judith Shaw, a 58-year-old yoga instructor, was approaching the age of 40 when a need for validation caused her to become obsessed with diet and exercise. She began to spend hours each day working out at the gym, sacrificing family time in favor of exercise. Even though her weight dropped to 85 pounds, no one in her life said anything about her weight loss and exercise obsession. Her doctors praised her efforts at avoiding weight gain as she got older. Finally, after two falls left Judith with a broken arm and pelvis, another yoga instructor begged her to start eating and get help. Due to years of malnourishment, Judith had developed osteoporosis as well as anemia.
Some women over 40 with eating disorders were first diagnosed as young women and overcame the problem, only to suffer a relapse as they age. An even greater number are like Judith Shaw and develop an eating disorder problem later in life. For these adult women, gaining control over their weight and becoming stronger through exercise begins as a positive activity but becomes life-threatening when carried to an extreme.
The Eating Disorders Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has seen a shift in its patients from mostly adolescents to an even mix of teens and adults. According to program director Cynthia Bulik, women in their 50s and 60s are influenced by American culture’s emphasis on slimness and the perfect body. When it comes to anorexia, older women abuse their bodies in the same ways as teenagers. Laxatives, a restricted diet and constant exercise are used to slim down and maintain a low body weight.
Eating disorders are often triggered by anxiety-inducing life changes. For young women, this could be a divorce in the family or going away to college. For more mature women, having a baby or seeing grown children move out of the house are stressful events that can lead to eating disorders. Because these women appear to be functioning well in other areas of their lives, their eating and exercise problems go undetected. Judith Shaw commented on her situation, “It was no one’s job to fix me, but I wish someone had said to me: ‘I miss you. You’re gone. You’re so obsessed.’ ”
Fortunately, most adult women with eating disorders respond well to the same type of treatment that is used for adolescents and young women. It’s important to get help early in order to avoid the effects of bone loss and osteoporosis. By working with therapists and nutritionists, a woman over 40 can begin to understand the origins of her illness and develop a more realistic body image. Nutritional counseling will help her adopt healthier eating habits.
In the case of Judith Shaw, art therapy helped her overcome her eating disorders. Her art work related to body image is currently on display at Columbia University’s Center for Eating Disorders. She is now 30 pounds heavier, but has shed the emotions that led to her anorexia.