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Life Over 50 Can Include An Eating Disorder

Sean Locke

Eating disorders aren't just a problem for teens and young women.

Many women over 50 grapple with issues related to body image and food, a new study finds.

Two-thirds of 1,849 women surveyed by researchers from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine said they were unhappy with their overall appearance. More than 70 percent said they were trying to lose weight. Nearly 8 percent reported purging within the last year, and about 4 percent reporting binge eating at least once a week.

About 28 percent of the women reported past experience with eating disorders. But the survey found that many older women with eating disorders had no previous history with them. The findings were just published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.

For more, we talked with psychologist Cynthia Bulik, the lead researcher on the survey and director of the UNC Eating Disorders Program. She's also the author of The Woman in the Mirror: How To Stop Confusing What You Look Like With Who You Are.

Here are highlights from our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Q: What factors do you think are influencing the growing prevalence of eating disorders in women over 50?

A: "I think part of this is that our society has made it not OK to age. Many industries have put enormous pressure on women to continue to look young even as they age. So I think part of this is a nasty side effect of what I call the '70 is the new 50' movement. Women are feeling like they need to go to extreme measures to continue to look thin and attractive and young."

Q: How big of a change are you seeing versus previous research?

A: "One study was done in Austria a while back, but we can't compare them because they are different countries at different times. One thing that this country [the United States] lacks is good epidemiological data to really look at trends. So we have no idea if this was any different 10 years ago. One possibility is that we really are seeing an increase in eating disorders in older women. Another possibility is that no one's ever bothered to ask, and so it has been this way all along."

Q: How does the obesity epidemic factor into this?

A: "Basically as the world is getting bigger and more obese, our societal ideals haven't changed. So the distance between what you are seeing in the mirror, and the societal ideal is becoming greater. That contributes to even more dissatisfaction, because the ideal seems so unattainable. And that's driving some of these extreme weight-control behaviors."

Q: What options are available for older women who may have an eating disorder?

A: "Part of the problem is that a lot of our treatments were actually developed for adolescent and young adult women. One of the things we know, for example, is for youth, family involvement is important. So one thing we've been doing is bringing partners in, if they have a committed partner, and getting them involved in the treatment and the recovery process. And that seems to be a very innovative and positive way to treat eating disorders in women over 50."

Q: Is there anything else you think our readers should know?

A: "A message to the women is, if they can look in a mirror every day and say something positive about themselves that has nothing to do with their physical appearance, that's going to really help break through how stuck we are in this negative body image. Those wonderful characteristics will persist long after traditional adolescent female beauty fades with age. And for the health care professionals, the message is: Keep eating disorders on your radar screen, no matter what the age of the patient. Just because someone is over 50 doesn't mean they're not at risk."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jessica Stoller-Conrad