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Anorexia During Middle-Age

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Anorexia Nervosa related image Photo: Getty Images

Because most people associate eating disorders with adolescent girls, it may surprise them to learn that there are quite a few middle-aged people suffering from them as well. Middle-aged women not only suffer from anorexia nervosa but they are dying from this debilitating obsession with calorie restriction as well.

Anorexia is related to issues of control. When a young, developing girl feels that life is moving too quickly, feels tremendous pressure to become successful or to be thin (or even just to grow up), she may restrict her calories in order to feel in control. It's the one thing she can manage and make an impact upon -- her physical appearance and condition.

This is almost like a healthy choice gone haywire -- the impetus to change yourself for the better and to improve upon your physical well-being and self-image could run you to the ground.

In middle-aged women, the impulse is similar. Many middle-aged women go on healthy diet and exercise regimens in hopes of regaining their youthful vitality and health, or to maintain their ideal weight. They feel societal pressure, now more than ever before, to age gracefully or -- truth be told -- to appear as if they are not aging at all.

Also, the pressures and changes of middle-age can cause women to feel that their lives are spiraling out of control, which can spur episodes or bouts with anorexia.

Deaths in the family, taking care of children, sometimes with illnesses or other issues, children growing and leaving home, divorce, career issues and money problems ... these can all lead to a sense of one's life being out of control.

With middle-aged women often feeling caught in the middle between children and careers, children and significant others and/or children and aging parents, there is little or no breathing room, no time to relax, unwind or to be beholden to oneself.

This can create a lack of self-care that can cause a woman to overdo it and cycle into negative patterns of calorie restriction and eating badly in hopes of, at least, liking what she sees in the mirror.

With eating disorders at any age, getting to the root of the issues that drive obsessions over calorie restriction and losing weight is crucial to overcoming it and getting back on track with emotional, psychological and physical health and well-being.

Talking to a counselor or therapist may be the most important first step you can take. Knowing you are not alone is also crucial. Please know that anorexia has no age limit. Neither does pain. There is help out there if you'll take the first step toward it.


Dangerous Extremes by Rebecca Leung. CBS News.
Retrieved from the internet on October 13, 2011

Anorexia Also Strikes Middle Aged Women. ABC Good Morning America.
Retrieved from the internet on October 13, 2011

Aimee Boyle is a regular contributor to EmpowHER

Reviewed October 14, 2011
by Michele Blackberg RN
Edited by Malu Banuelos

Add a Comment9 Comments

EmpowHER Guest

No anorexia for me. In my fifties, I'm enjoying the pleasure of eating healthy food, drinking my wine, enjoying the best of life in all senses.
Who cares what people think about us? we have survived, we have thrived, it's important to be true to ourselves.
Anorexia is a sad disease. Each one of us should have the body we're meant to have, and feel happy about it.

October 22, 2011 - 4:10pm
EmpowHER Guest

Actually, anorexia is not "about" control, or not wanting to grow up, or any of the other psychological hypotheses that have been put on this illness. It's a highly heritable illness with a strong neurobiological component. In other words, people with anorexia very likely have a strong family history of either eating disorders or anxiety disorders. Their brains are very likely wired differently from birth. The incredibly triggering environment we live in plays a role too. But people with anorexia don't starve themselves to gain control, even if it feels that way to them sometimes; they do it because they're wired in such a way that restricting makes them feel less anxious. That's how it usually starts, anyway. Comments like "When a young, developing girl feels that life is moving too quickly . . ." are just plain WRONG. There is NO scientific evidence to support this. Please be careful what you say. If you were one of my journalism students I would fail you for this story. --Harriet Brown, author, Brave Girl Eating: A Family's Struggle with Anorexia

October 15, 2011 - 8:21am
EmpowHER Guest
Anonymous (reply to Anonymous)

Harriet Brown, I knew my daughter had an ed when she wanted to read your book. She is now 6 months out of treatment, family-based, and is doing so well. Thank you.

February 23, 2012 - 6:23am
EmpowHER Guest
Anonymous (reply to Anonymous)

Ms. Brown, I'm sure your book is well-written and informative, and you obviously have experience with anorexia as the parent of a daughter who suffered with it. However, your experience doesn't put you in the position to make sweeping generalizations as to what does or does not cause this complex illness, and your condescending comments (ie "actually it's not about control" or "there is no evidence to support this") are both misleading and alienating. Your assertion that anorexics' restrictive behavior is a way to alleviate anxiety well documented among the professionals, but where the anxiety comes from originally is another matter. It most certainly CAN come from a fear of growing up, or from feeling out of control in the face of a loved one's death, or from having been powerless to stop sexual advances from an adult. But you say it's a brain hardwiring issue, without addressing traumatic events that could lead to unbearable anxiety. The extent to which people ignore the mind/body connection frightens me. Because you have written a book about your own family's struggle with anorexia does NOT mean you know the cause or cure for all victims, and suggesting that others are wrong is irresponsible and alienating.

November 16, 2011 - 10:13pm
(reply to Anonymous)

Dear Harriet Brown.

I agree that there are "brain wiring" components to eating disorders and that they may be linked to anxiety disorders.  It is my very sincere wish, though, that in a women's forum we can all learn to temper our commentary with maturity, grace and respect.  When you adopt an attitude of superiority and cast yourself in the role of teacher and of the writer of information with which you disagree in the role of failing student, you create a dynamic that eliminates the safety and support of open dialogue, and bring us right back to a competitive, hostile space.  It is my sincere belief that we are all more intelligent, more kind, and more caring about disseminating useful and beneficial information than we are committed to our own position of superiority.  I'm sure a thoughtful person such as yourself would not want to alienate the very women she is attempting to educate?

November 16, 2011 - 7:54pm
EmpowHER Guest
Anonymous (reply to Anonymous)

This is a ridiculous post. With all due respect, you don't know what causes anorexia any more than the experts do. I believe mine began as a way to control a chaotic and sexually abusive childhood. There is not one single member of my immediate or extended family with an eating disorder. It took thirty years for me to understand the causes of this horrible disease in my case. 80 percent of anorexics were abused as children--I don't believe it's coincidence. As long as Americans continue to blame genetics for a myriad of diseases--obesity, depression, eating disorders, etc, etc., we will continue the cycle. People are not born with emotional problems.

November 16, 2011 - 1:58pm
EmpowHER Guest

While more middle-aged women may be controlling their weight to the extreme of being too thin, the conclusion of why could be wrong. I believe a bigger causation is the ridiculously spiraling out of control cost of nutritional food -- protein, fresh produce, etc. -- and living at what is now the poverty level on fixed, low incomes.

October 14, 2011 - 2:26pm
EmpowHER Guest
Anonymous (reply to Anonymous)

I also respectfully disagree. It has nothing to do with the cost of nutritional food or income. It has everything to do with control, emotions, and not feeling good about yourself.

Signed - A Middle-Aged Slowly Recovering Anorexic

October 14, 2011 - 3:44pm
EmpowHER Guest
Anonymous (reply to Anonymous)

I respectfully disagree.

October 14, 2011 - 2:59pm
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