(NEW YORK) — While many attribute eating disorders to teen girls and young women, experts say there may be a growing number of older people who experience the same struggles. Whether there is more awareness and diagnoses remains unclear, but many clinical experts said they have seen a spike in women over 40 seeking treatment in recent years.
The triggers may be different among different age groups, but traumatic life events tend to trigger or contribute to eating disorders, no matter the age, said Susie Roman, program coordinator at the National Eating Disorders Association. When older women experience eating disorders, most of the time it is due to an earlier eating disorder that has resurfaced, but not always. New cases and those that resurface can be triggered by divorce, death of a loved one or children moving away.
“Older women who have eating disorders that return can often have a harder time changing since the behaviors are so a part of them but whether the eating disorder is different is not clear,” said Connie Diekman, director of university nutrition at Washington University at St. Louis.
“A common perception of eating disorders is that it’s all about food and weight,” said Sarah Parker, director of anxiety and eating disorders at the Reeds Treatment Center in New York. “On the surface, they are, but it is issues related to significant interpersonal stressors, and they end up coping with these stressors by controlling what they eat or how they look.”
More than 10 million Americans suffer from bulimia, anorexia or other types of eating disorders, according to the National Eating Disorders Association, and millions more suffer from binge eating.
Older women often fly under the radar with their disorders, though. Doctors are much more apt to notice eating disorders in teens who have lost an excessive amount of weight, or, if a young woman stops menstruating — a telltale sign of anorexia — a doctor will investigate further. Parents are usually involved with the feeding and care of teens, and because of this, family, friends and physicians are more likely to become skeptical of a change in eating and exercise habits.
While the health risks of an eating disorder are damaging at any age, older women are at an even increased risk because their bodies have aged more, said Parker.
“There can be significant damage to the heart and heart muscles,” said Parker. “In really severe cases, the heart can stop functioning. Fat stores in the brain can become depleted and affect cognitive and neurological functioning. It can also result in osteoporosis and organ failure.”
If friends or family do suspect a person is suffering from an eating disorder, Parker encouraged people to remember that the illness is an “expression of pain.”
“Families and friends tend to say, ‘you should eat more,’ or ‘you need to exercise less,’ but that can turn into a negative cycle very quickly,” said Parker. “Try to respond to the pain over the behavior by saying something like ‘it seems like you’re not doing very well, can we help you speak with a therapist or minister?'”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio