When asked to picture someone with an eating disorder, the image that emerges is probably a young girl in her teens or 20's. This image is not entirely inaccurate, though; according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 90 percent of the people who suffer from eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25.

Identifying The Minority

Who is that other ten percent of people diagnosed with eating disorders?

CNN reports that three percent of teens and one percent of adults have been diagnosed with eating disorders, with most of these reported cases being women. Despite the common conception of eating disorders plaguing only the young, new studies are being released and physicians are showing concern about the number of women who suffer from eating disorders mid-life.

Cynthia Bulik, lead researcher and director of the eating disorders program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, recently published a study of 1,849 women in the International Journal of Eating Disorders. All of the women who participated in the study were 50 or older.

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From the results, Bulik and her colleagues discovered that eight percent of the women had purged in the past five years, and seven percent exercised to excessive limits. Nearly 80 percent of the women surveyed acknowledged their weight or body affected how they saw themselves, and over one-third of the women had spent most of the past five years on a diet, reports USA Today.

A similar study was conducted in Australia, with a significantly smaller group of women aged 60-70. Researchers found that four percent of these women suffered from an eating disorder and that another four percent showed one symptom of an eating disorder.

These two studies bring to the forefront the importance and power of eating disorders in the population of women in middle age.

Are These Statistics Reliable?

Though Bulik reminds readers that these numbers may not be representative of the entire spectrum of middle-aged women, as there are 53 million women over the age of 50, she does say that physicians and mental health counselors recognize an increase in the number of middle-aged women who show extreme concern with body image and may participate in unhealthy eating habits, such as bingeing and purging.

Why Should Health Care Professionals Be Aware Of Eating Disorders In Women Of All Ages?

Eating disorders affect both the mind and the body. Eating disorders are often associated with feelings of:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Guilt
  • Loss of control
  • Stress

Some women use the ability to control every aspect of their diet and exercise to maintain control when they feel it is impossible to control other aspects of their lives.

Eating disorders do not just affect the mind, however. Women's bodies are also affected. Women with eating disorders suffer from fatigue, malnutrition and lowered or weakened immune responses. These health concerns are important to all women, but in older women the bodily stress caused by an eating disorder is exacerbated.

Bulik's study and the Australian research provided doctors with new information to consider when they speak with their middle-aged patients. Weight loss, weight gain and changes in appetite are common in middle age. The significant pressure being put on women to stay thin, however, may increase the number of older women, even those who are retired, who practice unhealthy eating habits.