Women 50 Plus Battle Eating Disorders

Women 50 plus battle eating disorders

Baby boomers and your grandmother: these are not people you typically associate with eating disorders. Yet a new study reveals that women 50 plus battle eating disorders more than you may think, and the majority of older women think about their weight every day.

Eating disorders have no age barriers

Approximately 24 million people in the United States of all ages and genders have an eating disorder (anorexia, bulimia, binge eating), and it is a mental illness usually associated with teenagers and young adults. In fact, it is commonly believed that 95 percent of individuals with an eating disorder are between the ages of 12 and 25, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.

Yet eating disorders and negative feelings about one's body and weight are not uncommon among women age 50 and older, as researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC) discovered when they conducted the "Body Image in Women 50 and Over--Tell Us What You Think and Feel" survey. The survey was part of the Gender and Body Image Study.

According to Dr. Cynthia Bulik, director of the UNC Eating Disorders Program, the research was undertaken because "we know very little about how women aged 50 and above feel about their bodies" because "no one has really bothered to ask." So she and her team did, and this is what they found when they questioned 1,849 women from across the country.

  • 8% of women said they had purged in the last 5 years. Most of these women were in their early 50s, although some were older than 75
  • 3.5% reported binge eating in the last month. Again, most were in their early 50s, with some older than 75
  • 62% of women said their weight or body shape had had a negative effect on their life
  • 64% said they thought about their weight or shape every day
  • Women engaged in various unhealthy ways to change their body shape, including use of diet pills (7.5%), excessive exercise (7%), use of diuretics (2.5%), use of laxatives (2%), and vomiting (1%)
  • 36% of women said they had spent at least half of the previous five years dieting
  • 40% weighed themselves at least several times per week
  • 66% were unhappy with their overall appearance
  • 84% were unhappy with their stomach


The average age of the women in the study was 59 years, and 92% of them were white. Most were either overweight (29%) or obese (27%), while 42% were normal weight and 2% were underweight.

Eating disorders and dissatisfaction with one's weight and body are not limited to the young. While media reports, studies, and treatment centers typically focus on adolescents and young adults when it comes to eating disorders, including more bizarre activities such as drunkorexia (eating disorder plus binge drinking), older women engage in eating disorder behaviors as well.

In fact, in a study published in the July 2011 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, the authors reported that unhealthy eating behaviors started at a young age can continue into adulthood. Although this study looked only 10 years ahead, it found a sharp increase with age (from adolescence through early adulthood) in the number of women who used extreme measures to control their weight.

This new study, however, highlights concerns about eating disorders and weight concerns among older women. Bulik concluded that "Healthcare providers should remain alert for eating disorder symptoms and weight and shape concerns that may adversely influence women's physical and psychological wellbeing as they mature."

Gagne DA et al. Eating disorder symptoms and weight and shape concerns in a large web-based convenience sample of women ages 50 and above: results of the gender and body image (GABI) study. International Journal of Eating Disorders 2012 June 21; doi:10.1002/eat.22030
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders

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