Clinicians Observe Rise in Eating Disorders Among Middle-aged Women
> 3/18/2008 10:30:20 AM

The profile most often associated with eating disorders is that of a young, white woman, and while this group remains the one most likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder, research is beginning to demonstrate that other groups are also at risk. Age had often been overlooked in research on eating disorders, and recent observations from clinicians and physicians have indicated that more older women are being diagnosed with eating disorders. This week, Dr. Tamara Pryor, clinical director of the Eating Disorder Center of Denver (EDC-D), reported on the characteristics of patients seeking treatment at the EDC-D, offering an insightful view of eating disorders among middle-aged women.

Dr. Pryor tracked patients at the EDC-D over the course of two years, comparing the information of 78 younger women with that of 63 women in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. While she initially believed that the specific issues facing these women would vary depending on their age, she found that these women had similar temperaments and triggers, regardless of age. Both age groups scored similarly on tests of character, with low self-esteem and high anxiety predominating. Additionally, young and middle-aged women were affected by many of the same triggers for disordered eating, including dieting, experiencing abuse, and grieving. While the two groups were more similar than dissimilar, some other triggers may be unique to older women. The approach of menopause may cause some to feel increasingly uncomfortable with their changing bodies, while changes in the family, such as a divorce or becoming a caregiver to aging parents, could also contribute to an eating disorder or escalate pre-existing disordered eating. Importantly, Dr. Pryor found that most women seeking treatment in middle-age had struggled with disordered eating in their youth as well and were experiencing a relapse or a worsening of chronic symptoms. Only 4% of women over 30 were experiencing their first episode of an eating disorder.

Dr. Pryor's work provides some indication of the changing trends in eating disorder diagnoses, and other groups have also noticed these changes. Last month, the British Dietetic Association noticed an increase in both older women and men using the services of eating disorder clinics, and several theories could explain why these numbers are rising. The population of middle-aged adults has increased in general and may be contributing to a subsequent increase in older adults with eating disorders. Awareness and understanding of eating disorders has increased as well, and this may have allowed more individuals, male and female, to receive an appropriate diagnosis and treatment. Additionally, the social and cultural influences that could contribute to the distorted body images of young woman may also be at play among their older counterparts. As Dr. Pryor explained in a press release: "We call this phenomenon the 'Desperate Housewives Effect' because of how thin and young the middle-aged women on the popular television show appear. The timely name puts some responsibility on a culture that supports and encourages fountain of youth fixes."

While Dr. Pryor's work has offered insight into eating disorders among middle-aged women, it has not been published in a scientific journal, and further study with larger samples and review from the scientific community is necessary in order to more fully focus on this subject. Eating disorders can be lifelong conditions, and continuing treatment is crucial to improving the lives, and in many cases saving the lives, of those who suffer from them. By studying eating disorder in the groups of people who have not traditionally been associated with these conditions, we will be better prepared to address their particular needs and concerns.

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