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Anorexia, Bulimia and Older Women

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

There is a tendency to associate Anorexia and Bulimia Nervosa with adolescent and young adult women. When we come across adults with these eating disorders the presumption is that it began during their teens. While this was true at one time, things have changed rapidly in today’s world. More and more, anorexia and bulimia are beginning during the late thirties, forties and even the sixties. Its accompanied by all the same health hazards as those experienced by younger women. By the way, I am focusing on women because they are the predominant group with these disorders. However, it does afflict a certain number of men. Those statistics you will have to search for elsewhere.

Why would women, ranging in age from their forties to their sixties, suddenly become anorectic or bulimic? It seems counter intuitive that people who are mothers, are aware of the dangers of these disorders, and probably disapproved of their own daughters when they were dieting, allow this to happen to themselves. Yet, hospital emergency rooms and eating disorders centers are seeing increasing numbers of these women and in alarmingly bad physical condition.

Its important to know that this can happen to anyone. What are some of the warning signs to watch out for with regard to yourself and to family and friends?

1. One of the clear signs of danger is the quote, “I want to eat healthy.” People are sincere in wanting to improve their eating habits and thereby achieve greater health. However, included in the comment are intentions to lose weight. There is nothing inherently wrong about wanting to lose weight, especially in light of the fact that many of us gain weight as we age. However, this is what becomes a “slippery slope.” What begins as a diet to lose a few pounds easily slips into a major eating disorder.

2. Teenagers have symptoms of anorexia that become very apparent. For example, the loss of the menstrual cycle is a clear indication that something is wrong. Osteoporosis in a young woman is another clear symptom that something is a health problem.

However, with older women, it becomes easy to dismiss symptoms and for the woman to hide what is going on. The loss of the menstrual cycle is anticipated as women age and enter menopause. Even MDs will attribute changes in the cycle to the aging process. In fact, some MDs admit that it can be difficult to distinguish the effects of menopause from effects of weight loss. Osteoporosis is another health problem that accompanies menopause and the decline of estrogen levels.

3. In a culture that values youthfulness and beauty so highly, many older women begin to worry about their attractiveness to men and to other women. That is why so many women go for cosmetic surgery despite the cost. Weight loss becomes part of this and it is not health that is the issue for these women. Before very long, and as they lose weight, they become entrapped by the obsession of losing ever more weight. This obsession is rewarded by other people, especially women, who applaud the weight loss thereby unwittingly encouraging more weight loss.

4. Excessive exercise can overtake an older woman just as much as someone who is younger. One symptom of that is the sudden absence or disappearance of a woman because she is constantly at the gym or jogging in the park.

So, the point is that there is no age limit when it comes to anorexia and bulimia. Older people are just as vulnerable as those who are young. Just when you thought you were safe from these problems they suddenly jump out at you.

None of this is to imply that women should not exercise, use better nutrition and maintain a healthy weight for their age and height. As with everything, moderation and good judgment are necessary to keep all of us out of getting in trouble.

Your questions and comments are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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