A ‘Surprising’ Number of Middle Age Women Live With Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are often regarded as a “teen issue”, but these dangerous mental illnesses affect people of all ages. In fact, a new study published in the journal BMC Medicine says eating disorders affect a “surprising” number of women in midlife.

The team of researchers from Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York City, discovered that 15.3% of the 5655 women in their 40s and 50s included in their study met the criteria for eating disorders within their lifetime, with 3.6% reporting eating disorders within the past 12 months.

Dr. Nadia Micali, MD, PH.D., medical director and associate professor of psychiatry at the Eating and Weight Disorders Program at Mount Sinai, told Medscape Medical News that the team was surprised by the results.

“The number of women who suffered from an eating disorder at some time in their past was slightly higher than we had anticipated, and there were many women with a current eating disorder, including some that developed it at midlife.”

The researchers say past efforts to estimate the lifetime prevalence of eating disorders have widely varied. They also say, “no previous studies have investigated the period or lifetime prevalence of EDs amongst women in the fourth and fifth decade of life, after most individuals would be considered to have passed through the primary window of risk.”

This motivated the researchers to examine how eating disorders evolve throughout a lifetime by following participants drawn from the UK Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC). ALSPAC was a population-based prospective study of women who had been pregnant and expected to deliver their babies between April 1, 1991, and December 31, 1992.

For the first phase of the study, the team had participants complete questionnaires, related to their health and history of eating disorders. In the second phase, the researchers screened respondents and interviewed those who were diagnosed with eating disorders, along with a randomly selected sample of those who screened negative.

Based on the information collected through these questionnaires and interviews, the team examined a variety of early risk factors potentially linked to the development of eating disorders. Specifically, they found death of a caregiver in childhood, overall childhood unhappiness, and interpersonal sensitivity were all associated with an increased risk for eating disorders. However, the strongest predictive risk factor for binge eating disorder and bulimia, according to the data was childhood sexual abuse.

“I was more surprised by the similarities than by the differences between risk factors for the various eating disorders,” said Dr. Micali. “Life and stressful events in childhood and adolescence and sensitivity to social issues were common to all eating disorders.”

By contrast, childhood sexual abuse was “most closely associated with disorders such as bulimia and binge eating, and poor maternal care was associated with bulimia,” she said.

Most concerning, the vast majority of the women included in the study (72.6%) never sought help or treatment for their condition.

“Many women we interviewed told us they had never sought help or spoken to a healthcare professional about their eating problem at any point in their life, suggesting potential healthcare barriers or lack of awareness among healthcare providers. It is important for the scientific community to be aware of this,” said Dr. Micali.

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