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Eating Disorders in Middle-Aged Women

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Eating Disorders in Middle-Aged Women

Mar 01, 2017

Eating disorders are commonly associated with teens and young adult women. But older, middle- aged women can also suffer from eating disorders. Dietitian Kary Woodruff talks about how eating disorders can develop in older adults and the various life stressors that can trigger them.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: When someone thinks about eating disorders, they're are commonly associated with teenagers and young adults but a population that is also at risk for eating disorders are middle age women. We'll tell you more about that up next on The Scope.


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Interviewer: It's not really a common thing you think about, that mom might have an eating disorder because she's mom, but she can. She can have an eating disorder and right now we have a clinical dietitian Kary Woodruff here with us. And eating disorders are an actual thing. It isn't just happening in teenagers that are looking through magazines and wishing they were skinny or like the models. It's a serious thing for maybe mom or dad, right?


Kary: Yeah, absolutely and just a couple of statistics to put it into perspective. So one-third of all admits to an inpatient eating disorder facility in 2003, were women who are over the age of 30. Then we also know in a recent survey they found that 15% of women ages 15 and older that exhibit eating disorder symptoms, 62% of these women reported that their weight adversely affected their life. And 70% of these women who are 50 and older were dieting to lose weight or maintain their weight. So these are really high numbers and just show how significant of an issue that this is.


Interviewer: You work in the clinic so you obviously see these people actually come in. It's a serious thing. People are coming in all the time for this, right?


Kary: Yeah, absolutely. My patients with whom I work are of all ages. By no means, is the adolescent the minority or the majority of my patients.


Interviewer: When you think about eating disorders in middle age woman because you said it happens more in women than it does with men.


Kary: Correct.


Interviewer: Is it because they developed it at an earlier age in their life when they were teenagers or is it something that they've developed as they're aging?


Kary: Yes. So eating disorders, the most common age of onset is during adolescence. We know that. So there are some women in their middle age who had an eating disorder for let's say 30 to 40 years.


Interviewer: And just couldn't get treatment?


Kary: Correct. It was never addressed. It was never caught. But there are also a significant number of these older women patients whose eating disorder did develop in their adulthood and maybe even later adulthood.


Interviewer: And why do you think that is?


Kary: Yes, it's pretty multi-factorial but what we know that . . . we know that there are different genetic, biochemical, interpersonal, psychological risk factors, but sometimes different life stressors can result in the onset of an eating disorder such as menopause or pregnancy, childbirth, divorce. So some of these different life events that happen later in life may be a trigger for an eating disorder. Could be some other traumatic event or just maybe inability to cope with life stressors.


Interviewer: So apart from how old they are when they're experiencing these eating disorders, are the symptoms the same as if you were to develop it as an adolescent?


Kary: Yes. Signs and symptoms are going to be pretty similar. They're just more likely to get missed because there's this perception that older individuals don't have an eating disorder. So they may exhibit the same signs and symptoms but it's less likely to be identified both by a medical provider and/or by family and friends.


Interviewer: We keep mentioning it but it's most likely because of the stereotype that you think, "Oh, I'm a middle age. I'm over 30. I'm over 40. I shouldn't be having an eating disorder." And so they feel like they shouldn't be going in for treatments.


Kary: Yeah. There can be a lot more shaming. So they may experience shame that they are dealing with what is perceived to be an adolescent issue and so because of that shame, they maybe. . .


Interviewer: It's like acne.


Kary: No, sure. Yep, and so they may be less likely to come forward as well as they just have other responsibilities. So I have patients who they may seek out treatment initially but because of other life responsibilities, they just feel that they don't have the time to address it. So they sort of give up on recovery as well. So there's a lot of different factors there.


Interviewer: If left untreated in these middle age woman, could it be more serious as they grow even older?


Kary: Yeah. So I mean, an eating disorder can be a life-threatening illness. We know that anorexia, for example, has the highest mortality of any psychiatric disorder and so that right there speaks to just how severe it can be. But there are lots of medical consequences to an eating disorder and the longer the eating disorder is happening, is occurring, then typically the more severe the medical effects can be.


I just think for any woman who is experiencing an eating disorder regardless of the age, to always seek out support and to come forward for treatment. So to consider working with a dietitian, working with a therapist, and working with a medical provider to get treatment because it is treatable. And the earlier we can identify it, typically the better the outcomes are.


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