Eating Disorders in Older People

Eating disorders do not discriminate; they can affect people of all ages and genders. The idea that eating disorders affect only teenage girls is a common misconception. Women and men can develop eating disorders in their twenties, thirties, forties, and beyond. The onset of anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder or any other eating disorder can occur at any time in a person’s life.

As reported by the National Eating Disorder Association,The International Journal of Eating Disorders published an online survey of over 1,900 women, called Gender and Body Image Study (GABI) which found that 13 percent of women over the age of 50 reported behaviors that would be considered symptomatic of an eating disorder. Seventy percent of women surveyed reported that they had, at some point in the five years preceding the study, attempted to lose weight by dieting.

Some people who develop eating disorders later in later life report having had no experience with disordered eating or dieting obsessions prior to the onset of the eating disorder. Others report having problems related to food and eating as well as body image issues throughout their lives. There is no typical pattern of dietary experience leading to a later in life eating disorder, meaning that any person could be affected at any time, regardless of what their relationship with food has been like before.

Even though the individual factors contributing to the development of an eating disorder may vary, no matter what the age of onset, an eating disorder is always a result of complex interactions between environmental and biological elements. When a person has a genetic predisposition to an eating disorder, the illness can emerge at any stage of life.

Possible Causes

Eating Disorders in Older Men

Research shows that eating disorders likely have a biological basis. However environmental factors and influences also play a role in the onset of an eating disorder. Usually, stress acts as such an environmental influence, as does a reduction in calorie intake and weight loss. Even if weight loss is not intentional and is a by-product of stress or hormonal changes, in some individuals this can influence the development of an eating disorder. Possible later-life stressors include marital problems, divorce, troublesome relationships or dating experiences, pressure to be thin, family problems, illness, career problems and death of a loved one.

Treatment centers around the world report increasing numbers of middle aged clients seeking treatment. Because not all people who suffer from eating disorders seek treatment, it is fair to assume that there is an even larger number of mid-life sufferers who do not seek treatment.

There are a number of environmental stressors that are unique to older adults, the most prominent of which are infidelity, divorce, and the empty nest effect as seen when children leave the home. All of these life circumstances are ones which can be potential stressors and could provoke an eating disorder in a person who is genetically predisposed to having one.

The onset of another, unrelated psychological disorder can also cause weight loss and disordered eating. If left untreated this disruption can develop into a clinical eating disorder. Depression and similar disorders can emerge in later life and can often impact a sufferer’s food intake. There are many reasons that an eating disorder may develop in later life. It is important that no matter what the age of the sufferer, that they receive efficient and effective treatment as soon as possible. The faster eating disorders are recognized and treated, the greater the chance of a full recovery.

Older Woman Eating Disorders

Pressure on Older Woman

Eating disorders affect both men and women, however, the response of society to the process of aging puts women in a place of increased vulnerability. As men age, they are often considered to become more distinguished. Women however, are not treated as respectfully by society as they age. Instead, they are often referred to as “wrinkly” or in need of commercial beauty products in order to remain attractive. This pressure can result in a woman feeling an increased dissatisfaction with the way that she looks, which in turn, could initiate dieting behavior.

Getting Help

If you are suffering from an eating disorder or think you are, or if you have a friend or loved one about whom you are concerned, it is vital that you seek help immediately. Older adults sometimes find it hard to reach out and ask for help, because eating disorders are still very much associated with being an illness that affects only teenage girls. The fact is, eating disorders can affect any woman or man at anytime in their lives; age has nothing to do with it. Eating disorders can be beaten and there is help available. There are also support groups which operate specifically to give assistance and help to older women and men who are suffering from eating disorders.


Return To Home Page



Written by Tabitha Farrar and Dr. Lauren Muhlheim – 2014


Recommended Reading:

Midlife Eating Disorders by Cynthia Bulik