Who Is Most At Risk For Eating Disorders After 40?

Within the past decade, the number of women over the age of 50 diagnosed with eating disorders has exploded. Some have suggested the spike in the number of older individuals being diagnosed with anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, or other novel eating disorders may be linked to changing societal pressures, but the reality is more likely that we weren’t looking for it.

Due to the increasing complexities of health at older ages, eating disorders are often overlooked in favor of more common health issues for the elderly. Many of the symptoms of eating disorders can appear as complications for other health issues that frequently arise later in life.

“Eating disorders are a real mental illness, not a lifestyle choice,” says Ovidio Bermudez, MD, medical director at the Laureate Eating Disorders Program and former president and current board member of the National Eating Disorders association. They affect individuals of every age, gender, and race, but the focus on these disorders within young women contributes to a higher diagnosis rate for the demographic.

While eating disorders occur across all demographics, there are some key characteristics of those who tend to develop eating disorders later in life. In general, there are two categories of adult women most likely to develop eating disorders:

  • Those who have sailed successfully through life but are now facing big challenges, such as changing career paths, children leaving the home for college, and problems with their marriages.
  • Those who have had a lot of unresolved issues and disappointments over the years that are now coming to a head.

Of course, a large number of women experience these pressures and challenges without developing eating disorders. Dr. Bermudez says the reason why some women develop eating disorders while others in similar situations do not is a combination of genetic risk influenced by psychological and emotional pressures, but is not completely understood.

Unlike other mental illnesses and disorders, researchers have not found an “anorexia gene” or “bulimia gene”, but there is a significant hereditary risk associated with eating disorders.

“People in families that share these illnesses share genetic material to a greater extent in certain chromosomes,” Dr. Bermudez explains, adding that shared personality traits also play into the mix.

“Ultimately, what people may inherit is temperamental characteristics that set them up for an eating disorder,” says Bermudez, though he also warns that heredity does not necessarily decide your destiny. Even if your family members have experienced eating disorders does not mean you are certain to.

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