National Eating Disorders Association

Mid-Life and BeyondThere is no age limit to disordered eating. Despite the damaging stereotype that eating disorders are a “teenager’s problem,” research shows that rates of eating disorders and body dissatisfaction occurring later in life are on the rise.  Although the exact symptoms of eating disorders  do not differ much from eating disorders at a younger life stage, the context can be drastically different. 

Some older adults who suffer from an eating disorder have struggled since youth and have never recovered; others have recovered then relapsed. Some have had food and weight issues for years but were never incapacitated by them until now. While others, faced with the challenges of adulthood and loss of status in a youth-obsessed world, develop rituals related to diet, exercise and appearance for the first time in their lives, which can lead down the slippery slope of an eating disorder.

How Are Eating Disorders in Mid-Life and Beyond Different?

Triggers to eating disorders and body image despair in older adults tend to differ and are often correlated with life-stage-specific events. Triggers in mid-life and beyond can include: 

  • Pregnancy
  • Divorce
  • Menopause
  • Natural signs of aging
  • Death of a loved one
  • Retirement
  • Empty nest
  • Marriage of a child
  • Becoming a grandparent
  • Aging parents

Despite the fact that eating disorders are largely experienced the same way regardless of age, there are some differences people at mid-life and beyond. For example:

  • Shame and embarrassment for having a “teenager’s problem”
  • Greater awareness of what they have lost due to their eating or body image issues
  • More obstacles to treatment due to other responsibilities
  • Increased anxiety about appearance/ health due to natural aging process
  • Multiple stressors and losses that accompany adult development

Age-related Complications

Older bodies often have less ease in bouncing back from an eating disorder, and gastrointestinal, cardiac, bone and even dental effects of eating disorders can worsen as people mature. This means clinicians should keep eating disorders on their radar regardless of the age of the patient.

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