The truth about eating disorders in older women

Mention anorexia or bulimia and most people will immediately think of teenagers, and probably of teenage girls.

But new research shows eating disorders such as these are secretly blighting the lives of a large number of older women, perhaps 3% of them. That apparently small percentage translates into hundreds, if not thousands, of women across East Sussex.

The research study, led by Radha Kothari of University College London, suggest that many cases of eating disorder have their origins in childhood problems.

Of these older women, less than a third had asked a doctor for help. Indeed, many told the researchers that the study was the first time they had spoken about their troubles.

“Individuals with eating disorders can be unlikely to seek help, often due to feelings of shame and fear of being stigmatised,” Dr Kothari, said. “Therefore their prevalence at all ages may be higher than we think.

This may be more the case for older adults than children and adolescents, whose parents and teachers may encourage them to seek help”.

These findings led the scientists to suggest that doctors and psychiatrists needed to be on the lookout for mid-life eating problems.

According to the study, it was striking that so many cases appeared to have been heavily influenced by the women’s early lives, with many reporting that they had had unhappy childhoods or seen their parents split up while they were young. Those who had suffered sexual abuse as children were also disproportionately likely to struggle with binge-eating, bulimia and other difficulties with food much later.

The data which Dr Kothari and his team examined on women in the west of England suggested that some 15% had faced an eating disorder at some point in their lives, and 3.6% had had one in the previous 12 months. Detailed interviews with 1,000 of the women suggested that the most common condition was binge-eating. Although most of the recent eating disorder cases had long histories, two out of five had begun in later adulthood.

Women who were strongly attuned to the feelings of others seemed to be particularly at risk, with their odds of having an eating disorder rising by 19 per cent for every extra point on their “interpersonal sensitivity” scores.

The scientists said that neglectful or “over-protective” parenting seemed to have inculcated body image problems and perhaps low self-esteem in many women. Adversities in early life seemed to lie behind psychological problems several decades later. Anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating and purging disorder were all associated with childhood unhappiness. Parental separation or divorce during childhood seemed to increase the risk of bulimia, binge-eating disorder and atypical anorexia. The death of a carer could increase the likelihood of purging disorder, and sexual abuse during childhood, or a fear of social rejection, was associated with all eating disorders.

Christopher Fairburn, a professor of psychiatry at Oxford University, who was not involved in the research, said “We knew this for teenagers, but this is the first data we’ve seen across this wide age group,” he said. “These women should know that a large proportion of them can be helped and that they are not alone or unusual.

“Forty to 50 per cent of women with anorexia can be cured completely, and the cure rate is as high as 60 to 70 per cent in women with bulimia nervosa or binge-eating disorder.”

Members of the East Sussex Counsellors group have experience in working with eating disorders. Whether counselling in Hastings, Eastbourne or elsewhere in the county, they would be able to use this experience to help sufferers from these disorders to overcome them.

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