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The surprising prevalence of eating disorders among older women

A new study finds that it's not just impressionable and insecure teenagers who are vulnerable. Why are so many older women also at risk?

Eating disorders among teenagers have been much scrutinized and publicized. But a new study — the first of its kind — found that problems with diet and body image are also quite common among women over 50. What accounts for this troubling news, and what can be done to help? Here, a brief guide:

How common are eating disorders among older women?
The report, released Thursday in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, says that 13 percent of women ages 50 and older struggle with eating disorders. Some never had such problems — such as purging, binge eating, and excessive dieting or exercising — when they were younger. Four percent reported binge eating; 8 percent said they had tried purging (getting rid of food by forcing themselves to vomit) in the last five years.

Is this really such a surprise?
Yes. Previous studies had suggested that women, who are more likely than men to suffer from eating disorders, become less susceptible as they mature. But 62 percent of the 1,849 women surveyed said their weight or shape has a negative impact on their lives. A "whopping" 79 percent said weight or shape affected how they perceive themselves, 41 percent checked their body daily, and 36 percent had spent half the previous five years dieting.

What makes older women vulnerable?
Many women over 50 are experiencing major life changes, such as "divorce, loss, children leaving home, children coming home, being in the sandwich generation when you're taking care of children and your parents," says lead researcher Cynthia Bulik, a psychologist and director of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Eating Disorders Program. These factors can all trigger mid- and late-life eating disorders, because many people use food to help "regulate mood during these times."

What is the danger in that?
All of these behaviors increase the risk of "full-blown eating disorders," according to the authors. "Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness," Bulik says. Women of all ages face "that constant bombardment of messages to look perfect, to be skinny and to be in control," says Janice Bremis, executive director of the Eating Disorders Resource Center in Campbell, Calif., and many "wonder 'How can I ever be perfect like that?'" And our "70 is the new 50" culture is increasing these pressures on older women all the time, Bulik says. Even women in the 75 to 84 age group were open to purging.

Can anything be done to help?
Many treatments for eating disorders have been developed for teenage girls and young women, says Bulik. For younger women, "family involvement is important," so it's important with older women to get committed partners "involved in the treatment and the recovery process." Older women need to be reminded to "look in a mirror every day and say something positive about themselves that has nothing to do with their physical appearance — that's going to really help break through how stuck we are in this negative body image." And their doctors, Bulik says, must keep eating disorders on their radar screens, and remember that "just because someone is over 50 doesn't mean they're not at risk."

Sources: HealthDay, NPR, USA Today

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