Even Older Adults Can Experience Eating Disorders: What You Need To Know 

When we think about people with eating disorders, it’s often teens or young women who come to mind.

This is because, until recently, this is the demographic group that most commonly experiences conditions such as anorexia nervosa, where you eat very little, and bulimia, where you eat a lot and then purge. Both can not only cause social problems but physical problems like malnutrition, even death in extreme cases.

So much of the attention has been focused on this population group, including treatment programs and general education.

This age group – roughly ages 15 to 25 – was thought to be particularly susceptible to these conditions due a combination of plenty of puberty-related hormones and strong societal expectations and pressures, especially on teen girls, to always be skinny.

Many of these mental health disorders cause people to deeply believe that they are a different size weight than their peers and even what their bathroom scales tell them.

However, recent research is finding that any age could be susceptible to eating disorders, including seniors.

And seniors with eating disorders present unique challenges in identifying and then treating these disorders. Dealing with them can also be harder on their brains and bodies than for younger patients – they may already be dealing with other problems, or their bodies may be weak.

Some seniors may not want to share their secret, but once they do, they may learn that they have access to more health care providers and familiarity with medical procedures than a teen might.   

Factors for seniors

The National Council on Aging says that anyone can have an eating disorder, including any age and any gender.

In some cases, an eating disorder may reappear in a senior after being in remission for decades. Some people may be genetically pre-disposed to them.

Someone may have had this condition as a teen, and it stopped after treatment. But later in life something may have triggered it so it returned, either as a memory of how life used to be or as a remembered response to difficult situations.

Others may have had this condition all along but have learned to deal with it – even keeping it secret for years so it’s part of their identity and behavior.   

WebMD said that some people may never had experienced these kind of disorders but certain circumstances may align so they begin to explore the early stages of these types of disorders without realizing it.

Genetics can play a role but some of the environmental triggers can include:

  • A loss of control over life. Things might be difficult but they can learn that controlling their food intake and outtake is something they can manage. Large changes, such as losing family members, may cause them to seek something controllable.
  • A form of protest. This is sometimes seen in assisted living centers where people don’t want to be there and show it by not wanting to eat. This can develop into something where they begin to lose weight.
  • Extra attention to diet. Just like a teen might obsess about caloric intake, people may focus too much on what they’re eating and what they’re spending, and often want to do less of both.  
  • Similar social pressures. Just like teens are told what the ideal form and weight should be, there are certain expectations for how seniors should look and act too. People may begin to want to watch their weight for health reasons and then it can snowball into something more dangerous.
  • Other undiagnosed mental health conditions, such as depression.

 Getting help

Just like younger people, seniors with eating disorders will try their hardest to not let others see what’s happening, especially if it involves something shameful like throwing up. They may even deny it if directly confronted, especially if they’ve been dealing with this type of condition on and off for a big part of their life.

Or they may not even be aware of what’s happening, especially if they haven’t had any kind of food-related condition in the past or think it’s only something that younger people experience.

Getting help might require a combined effort between loved ones and health care providers to look for the warning signs and also educate people without being judgmental.

Like teens, some of the signs include them wanting to eat by themselves or not having an interest in normal meals, irregular eating schedules, eating only small portion, or physical changes like significant weight loss, hair loss, sores or fatigue.

A kitchen or dining area that rarely looks used or rarely has new food could be another clue.

Once a disorder has been diagnosed and the person with it is ready for help, a provider can begin to offer physical and psychological treatment options depending on the person and their condition. Treating it may require looking at other factors in their life but solutions can range from counseling to medication that can promote weight gain and increase appetite.

Learn more

Many of the local and national resources available for young people and their loved ones work for older people too, such as the National Eating Disorders Association.

There’s also plenty of awareness in the winter months, with National Eating Disorders Week at the end of February and in early March.

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