Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Teenagers, from Harvard Women’s Health Watch

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Aging can be a challenge to body image. For some women, it may bring on — or rekindle — an eating disorder.

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Eating disorders are usually associated with teenage girls and young women, but more and more women in the baby boomer generation are suffering from them as well. Clinicians who treat eating disorders report an upswing in requests for help from these women, and surveys show a steady increase in the percentage of older people who engage in disordered eating behaviors such as strict fasting, purging, and bingeing, reports Harvard Women’s Health Watch.

Many things can cause disordered eating at midlife and beyond, including grief over the loss of loved ones, marital difficulties or divorce, and heightened awareness of an aging body, which can be particularly acute in women who must work beyond retirement age, especially in fields where looks are important.

Two of the most common eating disorders in women are bulimia nervosa, characterized by eating large quantities of food in a short period of time followed by forced vomiting, and anorexia nervosa, which is an obsessive fear of gaining weight that leads to severe food restriction and the use of laxatives and diet pills. Treatment focuses on restoring a healthy eating pattern and weight and addressing emotional issues. This usually means getting help from one or more physicians, a mental health professional, and a nutritional counselor. Approaches include:

Psychotherapy. This is the cornerstone of treatment for eating disorders. It comes in several forms, including cognitive behavioral therapy, which can help people think more realistically about food and their weight and appearance, and psychodynamic therapy, which helps people gain insight into personal issues that may underlie disordered eating.

Nutritional rehabilitation. A nutritional counselor helps people recovering from eating disorders to plan a healthy diet and learn how to eat in a way that keeps the digestive system working well while avoiding problems that can arise when normal eating begins again after a period of semi-starvation.

Medication. The antidepressant fluoxetine (Prozac), combined with psychotherapy, can help reduce bingeing and vomiting. The main “medication” for anorexia nervosa is food, as no drug works well until some weight is regained. Medications may be prescribed for the depression or anxiety that may accompany an eating disorder.

Read the full-length article: “Disordered eating in midlife and beyond”

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Harvard Women’s Health Watch is available from Harvard Health Publications, the publishing division of Harvard Medical School, for $28 per year. Subscribe at http://www.health.harvard.edu/womens or by calling 877-649-9457 (toll-free).

Media: Contact Raquel Schott at Raquel_Schott(at)hms(dot)harvard(dot)edu for a complimentary copy of the newsletter, or to receive our press releases directly.

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