When we think about those at risk for anorexia or bulimia, we think of impressionable adolescent girls, desperate for their bodies to resemble the beautiful, thin women on television and in magazines.
But in recent years, psychologists across the country have noticed a rise in eating disorders among women in their 30s, 40s and 50s. And a new study from the Eating Disorder Center of Denver confirms that an increasing number of women in midlife (30-65) are indeed struggling with these dangerous and potentially deadly disorders.
“Women with eating disorders who are age 30 and above fly under the radar in terms of getting noticed and treated,” says Dr. Tamara Pryor, clinical director of the Denver center and the author of the study. “Over the past four years or so, we've been seeing more midlife women with eating disorders in our center.”
Dr. Pryor refers to this phenomenon as the “‘Desperate Housewives’ effect” because of how slim and young the middle-aged women on the popular television show appear. She adds that this name puts some responsibility on a culture that supports and encourages “fountain of youth fixes.” These modern-day fixes, like Botox injections and skyrocketing cosmetic surgery rates, mean that older women are under more pressure than ever to appear young and slender — even if it's not normal for women over 30 to have the same bodies they did at 18.
In examining the midlife eating disorder patients, Dr. Pryor identified that most, 94 percent, suffered from these disorders in their youth, and something triggered either a relapse or their condition to worsen at an older age. Some of the midlife stressors that can trigger these disorders include divorce, aging parents, children leaving home, menopause and their own aging bodies.
Gail Schoenbach, 47, is the founder of the F.R.E.E.D. foundation, a nonprofit organization that funds eating disorder treatments for those in need. After struggling with bulimia for 24 years, Schoenbach sought help after her husband intervened. She says the affliction started in college as a diet and a way to stay thin, and she initially thought it would go away. Despite having three children, Schoenbach continued to purge between one and 30 times a day, even though her young children were around.
When Schoenbach sought inpatient treatment at the age of 41, she was the oldest woman in her group. But despite the age difference, Schoenbach noted that in treatment she found that she had a lot in common with a 16-year-old, and realized that the treatment for the disorder was similar for people of all ages.
Dr. Pryor explains that although a midlife eating disorder patient may be 46 years old, she is actually 16 years old, developmentally, since this kind of affliction can stunt emotional development. Patients often lack confidence and do not feel in control of their lives. And the external influences that make women feel bad about themselves are equally at work on both groups. In fact, Dr. Pryor says, it seems that younger and older females alike feel that they are in the same toxic environment.
Not surprisingly, the study found the midlife patients and younger women shared the same psychological issues: low self-esteem or self-worth, body loathing and, perhaps, a co-existing psychiatric condition. The study also identified a profile or “temperament” associated with those at risk for eating disorders: worrisome individuals with low self-esteem and a high level of anxiety. Other factors may include possible abuse (emotional, physical or sexual) and grief or loss. Since the younger and older patients are grappling with the same issues of worth and image, Dr. Pryor says that there is no need to have separate treatment settings.
Dr. Pryor’s study brings awareness to a new group of women, mothers or even grandmothers in danger. Hopefully, once loved ones are aware of the temperament of someone at risk for an eating disorder, they can take steps to prevent it or intervene before it’s too late. Left untreated, severe eating disorders can lead to heart failure or suicide. Dr. Pryor warns that the data indicates that eating disorders can be chronic, relapsing illnesses — but that those who seek early treatment (regardless of age) are best off.
Recognizing the disorder is an important step, and to that end it’s positive that there is media awareness of the condition. Even many celebrities have admitted to their own struggles with eating disorders in their youth — Jane Fonda, Princess Diana, Oprah Winfrey are among them. However, only a few, including Sharon Osbourne and Wynonna Judd, have admitted to a continued struggle in their later years, echoing Dr. Pryor’s warning that the condition can be a chronic one. Gale Schoenbach can certainly agree with that: As she approaches 50, she says she feels stronger, but that every day is still a test.
For more information on preventing and treating eating disorders, visit the National Eating Disorders Association and the F.R.E.E.D Foundation.