Too old for an eating disorder? Think again

YOUNG OR OLD: Eating disorders are not restricted to one age group.
YOUNG OR OLD: Eating disorders are not restricted to one age group.

MENTION eating disorders and many people will bring to mind the gaunt anorexic or bulimic teenager or young woman in her 20s.

Rarely does anyone think of an older person living with the condition.

But eating disorders know no age boundaries and many Australians,  male and female, struggle with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and other forms of eating disorders such as binge eating throughout their mature years.

Clinical psychologist Sarah Maguire, director of the InsideOut Institute in Sydney – Australia’s first institute for research and clinical excellence in eating disorders – is passionate about changing the way eating disorders are perceived and treated within the health system and the community.

“In the older adult population there are those who have had an eating disorder for their whole life and still have in older adulthood; you’ve got people that had an eating disorder earlier in life and then had a period, perhaps a very long period of recovery, but are having a relapse of some kind; and then you’ve actually got new cases developing in older adults,” Dr Maguire told The Senior.

“There is a lack of good research, but the available evidence suggests eating disorders in general onset around periods of  difficult life transitions and there are many of these in older adulthood – children leaving home, divorce or retirement.

“There are a lot of developmental challenges that come up in your older adult years.

“The most common time of onset of an eating disorder is in adolescence, and adolescence as we know is a time of huge development changes and challenges in a relatively short period.

“Older adulthood is another period in life where it’s just change after change in your biology and life circumstances.”

Dr Maguire said it was important not to confuse an eating disorder with a situation where an older person loses interest in food.

“An eating disorder is a mental health struggle. It has signs of pathological obsession with food, body, weight and shape and the control of food, body weight and shape.”

A general lack of interest in food, she said, had very different underlying causes.

One of the InsideOut Institute’s roles is to further research into eating disorders.

“In Australia, research into eating disorders receives $1.10 for each affected person compared with an illness like schizophrenia, which receives $67 per affected person,” Dr Maguire said.

“We need funding to do important work examining questions such as why eating disorders present in older adults, how they present, how we treat them and the long-term effects.

“Eating disorders do not discriminate. They affect both genders, all age groups from age six to the end of life. They affect all socioeconomic groups and all cultures.”

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