For adult anorexics, dying alone is not as uncommon an occurrence as we might think. It happened to a member of my family. And while researching adult anorexia, I came across another tragic story. It was about Rosemary Pope, pro-vice-chancellor of Bournemouth University and an anorexic, who also died in her home alone.
“Rosemary Pope -- was 49 years old and weighed just four stone 10lbs [66lbs]. Pope, who had had anorexia since her teens, is thought to have collapsed after returning from a shopping trip -- her heart -- had shrunk to the size of a child's because she had been starving herself for so long,” reported Kate Hilpern, of the Guardian, a British newspaper. One element that makes this disease so deadly for adult anorexics is their ability to isolate themselves so completely once they’ve left their family.
According to the Eating Disorder Coalition, the death rate statistics of anorexics are alarming, they report, “Anorexia Nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder, as high as 20%.”
There is much talk about the rise in middle-aged anorexia, but Donald Alpine, psychiatrist and director of the Eating Disorders Program at the Mayo Clinic, disagrees. Quoted in the Columbia Daily Tribune, Dr. Alpine said, “There is some data suppporting the idea that more middle-aged women are seeking treatment for eating disorders, but this is not the same as saying that more are developing eating disorders. Most, in my practice, have struggled with food and weight and body image since adolesence.”
Dr. Strober, the director of the Eating Disorders Program at the University of California in Los Angeles, is in agreement. In an interview with WebMD, he said, “Remember that adult-onset anorexia, true adult-onset, where you have no symptoms prior to age 20, is extremely rare.”
So let’s take a middle-aged woman who hasn’t completely recovered from anorexia or has been flirting with the disease for years. Suddenly she comes up against a trauma in her life: loss a loved one, a job or a divorce. There’s a good chance she will relapse and fall back into what once made her feel in control: anorexia.
Indeed, Dr. Walter Kaye, director of the Eating Disorders Treatment and Research Program at University of California in San Diego, who has been at the forefront of researching the genetic component of eating disorders, in response to my email, acknowledged that, “Although many people with AN tend to have an adolescent age of onset, we do see people who have an older age of onset. Sometimes they may have many of the premorbid temperament and personality traits (anxiety, perfectionism, obsessions, etc.) as an adolescent or adult, but don’t develop AN until they experience some stress.”
Yet no one can deny the societal pressure on adult women in this country: most work, raise children, emotionally support their husband and family, feel they must look good and be perfect all while dealing with hormonal fluctuations. Quite a heavy burden for women with or without anorexia. This societal pressure is definitely part of the overall problem of perfectionism in anorexia and not to be diminished.
Adult anorexia is obviously a complicated disease with no easy answers, but new emphasis is being placed on research and innovative programs due to the number of women affected. In part two, we’ll look at some of these programs.
"Older women fight eating disorders Patients seek out help in middle age." Columbia Daily Tribune. Columbia Daily Tribune MO. 2006. HighBeam Research. 5 Jan. 2010 .