Eating disorders diagnoses are up for women in their 40s and 50s

Jan 19, 2017 at 11:00 a.m. ET
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Discussions about eating disorders in younger women, especially those in the adolescent- to college-age years, have been a topic of interest for years. But what many of those discussions have left out is the increasing numbers of women in their 40s and 50s who are being diagnosed with this condition.

For the first time, the prevalence of eating disorders is being investigated in a population sample of women later in life, and the results were just published in a new study from BMC Medicine.

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The U.K. study looked at 5,320 midlife aged women and found that 3 percent have an active type of eating disorder — a figure that was higher than expected when researchers began looking into this trend.

According to Dr. Nadia Micali, lead author from the Department of Psychiatry at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York and University College London, “Our study shows that eating disorders are not just confined to earlier decades of life, and that both chronic and new onset disorders are apparent in midlife.”

In fact, the study found that around 15.3 percent of women sampled reported having an eating disorder at some point in their lives and 3.6 percent reported an eating disorder in the past 12 months.

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What the authors also discovered was that less than 30 percent of women who have an eating disorder said they had not sought help or received treatment. For many of those women, this was the first time they had ever spoken about their eating difficulties, which led researchers to acknowledge that there need to be more studies done to find out why most middle-aged women don’t seek help for their eating disorders.

In an attempt to answer the “why” questions regarding the numbers of women developing and being diagnosed with eating disorders in their 40s and 50s, researchers assessed factors that may be associated with the onset of an eating disorder, including childhood happiness, parental divorce or separation, life events, relationship with parents and sexual abuse.

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What they found was that anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating and purging disorder were all associated with childhood unhappiness, but that parental separation or divorce during childhood seemed to increase the risk of bulimia, binge-eating disorder and atypical anorexia.

It’s important to note that this study was observational and longitudinal, so it can increase our understanding of possible links between early risk factors and eating disorders, but it cannot show cause and effect. In any event, more research is needed in this area to ensure the best care for women of all ages.