Monday, April 28, 2008

Eating disorders among older women

Within the last few years, there has been a growing trend among older women and eating disorders. There have been a number of articles, tv segments, and recently books written about this population. Various eating disorder treatment centers around the country have said there has been an increase in their admission rates of older women. By older, I mean women who are in their 30s and beyond. Last week, there was an article in the UK about a distinguished professor who apparently died from her anorexia or as the coroner said, “The cause of death was contributed to by her self-neglect, her gross failure to provide herself with care that is a part of life."

In another
article from UK's The Guardian, (excellent by the way in my opinion) the issue of adult women and anorexia is looked at more closely. While many women develop eating disorders as adults, there are also those who have experienced some form of eating disorder or disordered eating as teens or young adults. Many have not gotten sufficient treatment, so they "grow" with their disease. Others have their eating disorders reoccur at a later stage in life, often triggered by a major life event--pregnancy, divorce, empty nest syndrome, trauma, etc. The article points out how so many become a "functional" eating disordered person and how many people just get used to seeing them like that. They are also very good at being very discrete with their illnesses. Author Margo Maine who wrote The Body Myth talks a lot about his subject and how there is a lot of pressure for adult women to be perfect. If you have not read it, I recommend this book.

These articles come on the heels of a recent
study which polled over 4,000 women between the ages of 25 and 45 about their eating behaviors. The online poll by Self magazine in collaboration with UNC Chapel Hill found that "75 percent of all American women endorse some unhealthy thoughts, feelings or behaviors related to food or their bodies." These findings were among all racial lines. The study surprisingly showed that a third of the surveyors had engaged in purging activities during their lifetime. Also, women in their 30s and 40s had similar disordered eating compared to their younger counterparts. In the link above, eating disorder researcher Cynthia Bulik talks about the results of the study.

It's interesting, as I was reading these article, I was reminded of my aunt, my mother's sister. I have not seen her in quite a long time, but growing up, she was very thin. I remember talking to my mom about this in my teens as I was at the height of the eating disorder. I was actually upset that no one was doing anything for her, but yet, they "cared" so much about me to want me to be fixed. At one point, I called my aunt out on it suggesting she was anorexic. I remember getting through to her and her crying. She said she had read about anorexia but she didn't fit the "textbook" definition.

I don't think she ever received help, but I know there are too many clues that suggest she had/has anorexia. Non-existent to irregular menstrual cycles, her weight never in three digit number despite being an average height for a woman (no, not a genetic thing either), totaling two cars from blacking out (supposedly petit mal seizures though no evidence of that), illnesses, premature aging, and her personality. My mother just always said that J. had been like that growing up--very rigid and stubborn. It's like everyone had just accepted that that was how she was, and that it was now too late for her to receive treatment.

Since I haven't seen her in awhile, I don't know what she looks like, though my instinct is that it is probably similar to how I remembered her. I do know she is happier in her life since she retired from the school system, began volunteering, and is now doing therapy dog work. However, according to my mother, J. says she must get to a certain number of therapy visits to win top honor.

The other thing these articles made me think about is even if I lick the eating disorder at my age, I'm heavily predisposed for relapse or reoccurrence. Though relapse isn't a requirement, eating disorders as a fact have a high rate of relapse. I know there used to be the thought that once you had an eating disorder, you always had an eating disorder. Many people have proved that theory wrong and recovered completely. Still though, how can you not think that the ED isn't there lurking in the shadows just waiting for a vulnerable time? I think this is something that scares me. There was a period in college where I was symptom free, and then one day, just snapped and fell victim to the ED again. I honestly can't remember that time well. I wasn't happy but I was facing other health issues. In essence, the ED just took a backseat and waited.

I want this time to be different. I don't want it lurking in the shadows waiting to take hold of me. I don't want to think about this for my entire life, but at the same time, I'm really afraid of never getting there either.

How do you build the confidence to never turn back?

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