Eating Disorders In Older Women And Men Are On The Rise

Woman with hands tied by inch tape
Woman with hands tied by inch tape
(Image credit: REX/Shutterstock)

We typically associate eating disorders with teenage girls, but have you ever stopped to consider whether you, your son, or even your husband could be at risk?

Eating disorders in older women

Recent findings indicate that 1 in 6 eating disorder patients receiving specialist treatment is over 40, whilst 13% of women over 50 exhibit eating disorder symptoms. 70% of women over 50 admit that they are currently trying to lose weight, which could put them at risk of developing an eating disorder (dieting frequently acts as a trigger for the onset of anorexia or bulimia).

Julie Elmhiri, 44, who battled anorexia nervosa, says she didn't think it could happen to someone her age, describing her diagnosis as a "massive shock".

There's no upper age limit - even the elderly can be affected. Diane Jeffrey, Chair of The Malnutrition Task Force and Chairman of Age UK, says, "Eating disorders in later life are a serious issue that deserve greater recognition and awareness amongst healthcare professionals and others working with older people. We've heard of cases where older people who had a diagnosis of an eating disorder as a young adult successfully managed their issues through their life to older age - until they moved into a care home or felt out of control, when they reverted back to their food control behaviours. The GPs and healthcare professionals involved did not recognise the symptoms."

Eating disorders in men

The issue of eating disorders in men was brought into the spotlight recently thanks to former One Direction member Zayn Malik's admission that he struggled with an eating disorder during his time in the band. In his autobiography, he says that he would sometimes go "two or three days straight" without eating.

Recent years have seen a 66% rise in hospital admissions amongst men suffering from eating disorders, but campaigners believe this could represent 'the tip of the iceberg', since men tend to be less inclined to seek medical assistance. 11% of eating disorder inpatients are male, but experts believe that men might actually make up 25% of all eating disorder sufferers. Men are most likely to develop an eating disorder between the ages of 14 and 25, but it is not unusual to develop issues with food in middle age - life transitions often trigger the onset of an eating disorder.

What causes an eating disorder?

Eating disorders are often triggered by dieting or being teased about weight, but, at a deeper level, tend to be a manifestation of underlying emotional stress. Their onset often coincides with times of stress, change or upheaval, e.g. starting or leaving a job, school or university, ending a relationship, or, in older people, retiring or moving to a care home. Eating disorders are often characterised by psychologists as an attempt by the sufferer to regain a sense of control over their life. They're more common in people who tend to feel anxious or worried, and who exhibit perfectionist or obsessive-compulsive tendencies.

Could I have an eating disorder?

Doctors sometimes ask the following 5 questions in order to ascertain whether someone might have an eating disorder. If you answer yes to 2 or more, you should seek further advice and support.

Do thoughts of food dominate your life?

Have you recently lose more than a stone within a three month period?

Do you believe yourself to be fat when others say you are too thin?

Do you worry that you have lost control over how much you eat?

Do you ever make yourself sick because you feel uncomfortably full?

Worried that someone else may have an eating disorder? Look out for the following signs:

They frequently miss meals

They seem to avoid eating at home - perhaps claiming that they have already eaten or are going out to eat later

You often catch them weighing themselves and/or looking at themselves in the mirror They avoid going out to eat

They complain that they are 'fat', although they are a normal weight or underweight

They seem to have developed a predilection for certain low-calorie foods, e.g. lettuce or cottage cheese

They cook big or complicated meals for other people, but eat little or none of it themselves (eating disorders often precipitate an obsession with food)

Seeking help

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder, but 4 in 5 of those who receive treatment within the first few years of onset show improvement, with up to half making a full recovery. People suffering from an eating disorder often deny that they have a problem (even, sometimes, to themselves) which can make the task of seeking help and treatment difficult. Your GP should be your first port of call, but eating disorder charity Beat can offer impartial guidance and advice to eating disorder sufferers and their loved ones, whether or not you seek medical intervention. Call 0345 634 1414 or visit their website. Age UK can offer support to older eating disorder sufferers. Call 0800 169 2081 or visit their website.