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Eating Disorders in Mid-Life

2017-03-14 01:20:44 Posted by Kim Gerads, LCSW

Eating disorders are on the rise for women in their 40s and 50s. While eating disorders have been known to afflict the teens,  college student, and young adult population, women in midlife are increasingly affected. Treatment centers are reporting higher admission rates of women in midlife. Eating disorders are surpassing the boundaries of age and gender, with men in midlife also developing problems in extreme eating behavior, eating attitudes and preoccupation with body image. Many of those now struggling midlife also struggled in their teens, making them at higher risk for relapse around middle age. For others, body image and difficulty regulating food intake has been a lifelong challenge, but when one is seemingly functional, an eating disorder can go undetected.

We know that midlife brings about life transitions that can be difficult to cope with and accept. Some of those transitions include caring for ailing parents, while simultaneously raising their own children. It can be difficult to watch the mental and physical decline of elderly parents while you may still see them as you did when you were growing up. Furthermore, guiding children through the teen years can be wrought with the stresses of their safety, their whereabouts, and their increasing independence. Feeling sandwiched between aging parents and growing children can leave little time for self-care. Thus, one’s food intake and body size become something to control when otherwise feelings powerless or burned out. The eating disorder serves as a reprieve from such pressures.

In addition, during the empty nest, men and women may re-examine their marriages during midlife to determine whether their relationship has enough substance to be sustained beyond that of parenthood. This can create a flux of emotion and consternation. An eating disorder becomes a way of coping with uncertainty, yet can keep one from facing internal conflict rather than dealing with it directly. Some enter the painful process of divorce, one of the greatest stressors someone can go through, up there with the death of a loved one. Again, an eating disorder progresses as a way to cope, eventually becoming maladaptive and requiring psychological and medical help.

An eating disorder can inadvertently be an attempt to deal with the physical changes brought about in midlife. For example, it can be difficult to adapt to hormonal fluctuations of perimenopause and menopause, metabolic shifts and signs of aging in one’s physical appearance. There is much reinforcement for those in midlife to maintain a youthful appearance, including thinner and fitter bodies than in one’s younger years, making it less likely to acknowledge the adverse effects of being preoccupied with food, shape, and weight. While it is normal to want to age well, some go to an extreme to defy the natural aging process, catapulting them into eating disorder behaviors.

Eating disorders aren’t always obvious and can easily fly underneath the radar. While eating disorders in midlife are increasingly occurring, it is important to know that there is hope and healing.