Eating Disorders in Older Adults

Health Writer

Eating disorders  are most often associated with teenage girls, but in recent years, more and more women over 50 are being diagnosed and treated for eating disorders. Today the quest for beauty doesn't end when you turn 30, 40 or 50. There are numerous ads for anti-wrinkle creams, lotions that can fade age spots and fitness products to help you stay slim. From the time we are young, we are conditioned to see beauty in certain, narrow-minded ways, such as being slim, and while many people are fighting that image, it still exists. Everyone, no matter what their age, wants to feel attractive and beautiful.

Most often, when older women and men are found to have an eating disorder, it can be traced back to their youth. They might have a long untreated disordered eating. They have survived most of their life by eating only small meals or limiting their calories in other ways. Some might have had eating disorders in their youth and have resolved the issue, only to have it resurface after a stressful situation, such as the death of a spouse or close friend. When eating disorders resurface, they can go unnoticed by family and friends. "Eating disorder" isn't the first thing that is going to pop in your mind if your mother, or grandmother, begins losing weight, becomes fixated on calorie counts or begins relentlessly exercising. You might even be pleased that your older relative is taking such an active interest in remaining healthy.

Anorexia nervosa is the most common type of eating disorder seen in the elderly. It often develops as a way to cope with a stressful event or feeling like your life is out of control. This can be the death of a spouse or child, a divorce, family problems or financial problems. Controlling your eating is a way of controlling your environment. It is a coping mechanism. Dr. Stanley J. Dudrick, in an article, explains are other reasons for eating disorders in older adults:

  • Alterations in taste and smell
  • Changes in eating habits due to medication use
  • Undiagnosed and/or untreated psychological problems
  • Cognitive and memory impairment
  • Attention seeking
  • Loss of a loved one
  • Loneliness
  • Rejecting food as a form of protest
  • Feelings of loss of control because of loss of independence or illness

Treatment for eating disorders in the elderly is similar to treatment for the younger population. A combination of dietary interventions, psychological care and medical care is often used:

  • Review prescriptions to determine if any cause loss of appetite or other changes in smell and taste that could be contributing to disordered eating
  • Address unresolved depression or anxiety
  • Provide support, including support groups, especially those with older adults as participants
  • Provide support and education to family members
  • Provide support in food shopping and meal preparation
  • Work with a nutritionist or dietitian to plan meals

Possibly the most important part of treatment is to identify and resolve the underlying issue, for example, if your older relative recently lost their spouse, it is possible that eating meals alone makes her feel lonely. Anorexia is a disease and should be treated as such. It doesn't come from stubbornness or isn't used as a way to punish others. It is a manifestation of stress, depression, low self-image or other psychological trauma. Psychotherapy should be a central part of treatment.

For more information:

Get the Lowdown on Anorexia

Anorexia, Bulimia and Depression

GERD and Eating Disorders: Similar Symptoms