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Anorexia and Aging


min read


Most people tend to think of anorexia as a disease that affects young women and teenage girls. However, this is certainly not the case. Although there is a growing awareness that anorexia and other eating disorders don’t discriminate on grounds of sex, race, age or sexuality, there is still a stereotypical view of what an anorexia sufferer looks like. It’s fair to say that, if a cross-section of the public were asked to draw a picture of someone with an eating disorder, none of the images would be of an elderly person. Yet, aging and anorexia is a serious problem, albeit one that is misunderstood and sometimes overlooked.

Recent research has revealed that anorexia is just as likely to be present in elderly people as in younger ones and, even more worryingly, eating disorders in elderly people are even more deadly, resulting in almost 80% of all deaths from anorexia.

A team of psychologists from the University of British Columbia looked at over 10 million U.S. death records over a 4-year period and discovered some disturbing findings. In the case of women with anorexia, the average age of death was 69 years. For men, it was 80. The findings also showed that in cases involving younger people, the victims of anorexia were 90% female, in cases involving those aged 45 or older, the percentage of men had more than doubled, coming in at 21%. It was this study that really brought home the scale of the problem of aging and anorexia.

The Unique Problems Of Older People With Eating Disorders

Not only do older people suffer from eating disorders just as often as younger people, but there are several unique problems only experienced by this age bracket. Some older anorexic patients are told by doctors that they’re too old to have an eating disorder, while others are told they it was something they should have grown out of. This makes it much harder for older sufferers to seek out the help that they need since they’re worried about the stigma attached to having an eating disorder. To make matters worse, even when older eating disorder sufferers do seek out medical help, they often find that they are unable to access the essential services and treatment programs that could help them due to their age.

Older people are also more susceptible to anorexia because the development of an eating disorder will often be due to the individual struggling to cope with difficult events in their life. The chances of elderly people experiencing such events – for example, retirement, lost independence and the deaths of loved ones – increase dramatically. Older people may find their coping mechanisms are inadequate for the circumstances they find themselves in and end up using food as a way of gaining back some level of control over their lives.

Why Are Aging And Anorexia A Poorly Recognized Problem?

The dangers associated with eating disorders have been well documented. However, the effect of anorexia on the elderly has not. What is the reason for this?

It’s believed that the simple reason is that, overall, there’s a misconception that anorexia and, indeed other eating disorders, are primarily disorders that occur in young people. There is a common misconception that anorexia is something that you can grow out of, so once someone enters old age, they are overlooked as an eating disorder sufferer. Yet, the fact is that, far from growing out of an eating disorder, sufferers who have anorexia at a young age will continue to live with the condition throughout their lives and into their old age.

Despite this, many medical professionals and family members fail to recognize that an older person with anorexia is suffering from an eating disorder. Rather, they attribute their malnutrition, symptoms or weight loss to other medical conditions or even the normal process of aging.

Even if family members know that an older loved one has struggled with an eating disorder in the past, the signs of relapse are often differently interpreted once the sufferer has reached old age compared to how the same signs would have been interpreted earlier in their life.

To make matters more complex, some symptoms associated with eating disorders mimic those linked with other normal signs of aging. For example, older adults might need to take medication which causes nausea and vomiting, or they may suffer from functional issues that make them unable to plan adequate meals or obtain groceries.

Even though it should be easier to spot anorexia in older people who are having assistance from either a nurse or family members, it’s surprising how often an eating disorder will manifest then go undiagnosed. Even in nursing homes and assisted care facilities, it’s possible to restrict food consumption or even abuse laxatives that are often given out by nursing staff. Some older people even develop anorexia as they develop a belief that restricting calories will extend their lifespan.

The Strain Anorexia Causes On The Body

Age has a key role to play in how an individual mentally and physically copes with an eating disorder. Even in a younger person, eating disorders often lead to serious health conditions. In an older person, the risks are even greater. Anorexia takes a huge toll on every system in the body. In an elderly person, the body is much less resilient in the first place due to the natural process of aging, and therefore, an eating disorder could cause more serious damage and more rapidly. Common medical problems in older people like heart problems, gastrointestinal issues and osteoporosis can be complicated and exacerbated further by anorexia.

A Lack Of Positivity Worsens Anorexia In The Elderly

Another issue that affects older people suffering from anorexia is that they sometimes have less motivation and support from other people to get the treatment they need. Since many elderly sufferers believe that they are already close to the end of their life, they have little future goal-related motivation to recover since they already anticipate poor health and death. This sets older sufferers apart from younger anorexics who may be able to look forward to a brighter future after overcoming their eating disorder.

What Causes Anorexia In Older People

Aging and anorexia are inextricably linked for several reasons. In younger anorexics, it’s often believed that the disease develops due to the sufferer’s perception about their body. In elderly people, this is rarely the case. Often, the reasons are financial, physical or emotional.

Some typical causes of anorexia in older sufferers include a loss of enthusiasm for living, depression, an attempt to get the attention of others, economic hardship, appetite-affecting medication or even a kind of protest. Wasting diseases like cancer cause poor appetite and, of course, as we age, appetite naturally decreases. If someone has dementia, they may forget to eat, while some older people simply can’t be bothered with the hassle of buying, preparing and eating food. Add into the equation the fact that the ability to smell and taste food declines and false teeth may make it difficult to eat without pain and it’s easy to see why aging and anorexia go hand in hand.

Aging’s physical effects alter how the body’s processes function. The ability to absorb, digest, excrete and metabolize nutrients worsens with age, while the natural reduction in appetite paired with effects of aging illnesses only service to complicate the issues, making it more difficult for doctors to identify when someone is suffering from an eating disorder.

Is Poor Body Image No Longer An Issue?

Although in many cases, the cause of anorexia in older people is nothing to do with poor body image, there is still a significant proportion of older people whose eating disorder is down to low self-esteem. Older women especially cite body image as a reason for avoiding food and eating. While society tends to believe that older women have no struggles with self-image, studies have revealed that in many cases they are just as worried about their weight as younger women.

The statistics show that around 80% of women aged between 60 and 70 actively tried to control their weight, while 60% were dissatisfied with their body. Research carried out amongst women aged 50 or older showed that about 70% were working hard to lose weight and of those women, 13% had symptoms of eating disorders.

Depression – A Key Factor In Aging And Anorexia

It’s known that depression is a common problem in older people. The elderly go through numerous transitions that could be a catalyst for an eating disorder. Their children have grown up and left home, and in some cases are rarely seen again. They have retired and have a significantly reduced income, not to mention a feeling of being useless and no longer needed. Their friends and family members die and they have to attend their funerals. They may lose their life partner and have to learn how to cope alone. They may have to leave their own home and go into an assisted care or nursing facility. It’s no wonder that depression is so common. Depression and other mental health disorders are known to co-occur alongside anorexia, so it comes as no surprise that older people who are going through this difficult stage in their lives may develop eating disorders, whether or not they have had any propensity in the past to food issues.

Difficulties In Seeking Help

Aging and anorexia is becoming an increasingly complex issue, not only because eating disorders are difficult to spot in older people, but because older people who are sufferers find it hard to seek help. Not only do they worry about the stigma of being labelled as having anorexia later in life, they may also find that doctors don’t take them seriously.

Even when older people do seek help for their condition, there’s the possibility that they may no longer be able to get the specialist eating disorder help that they need due to their age. A recent investigation by the BBC in the UK into eating disorder clinics found that some had a patient cut-off age of 65. Older patients would, instead, be referred to a general geriatric mental health unit which would not be able to offer sufferers the same high level of personalised care. Some areas have no eating disorder specialist services for any adults aged 18 or over, so those who are elderly find it even more difficult to access essential care near their home, and even when a referral to a specialist unit can be made, patients may need to wait for several months before being offered a place.

What To Do If You Believe That An Older Loved One Has Anorexia

Therapy Session All Ages | Anorexia | The Meadowglade

It can be difficult to spot the signs of anorexia in an older loved one, however there are a few symptoms to look out for:

  • Stomach pain caused by swelling or bloating due to irregular eating
  • Unusual behavior at mealtimes
  • Fatigue and poor sleep patterns
  • Increasing social withdrawal
  • Discolored, dry skin
  • A very tidy kitchen
  • No food packaging in the recycling or bin
  • Evasive comments regarding food such as “No thanks, I just ate.”

Anorexia is an illness characterized by secrecy so it’s highly unlikely that a sufferer will admit to you that they’re experiencing issues. However, if their weight has dropped dramatically, you should take action. Here are some practical ways you may be able to assist:

  • Encourage them to be more interested in cooking and food
  • Make each mealtime more meaningful by dining with them or asking about their old favorite meals and recipes
  • Form a system of support with other friends and family members at mealtimes
  • Make sure that they stay well hydrated. Having enough water on hand during the day helps to aid the digestive process and can make swallowing easier

Despite taking action, it may be necessary to obtain medical advice to help your elderly loved one. If discussing the issues with them doesn’t work, consult with your own doctor about the next step to take to get the sufferer the help they need.

Aging and anorexia may be a poorly understood issue, but by raising awareness, your older family member can get essential support and medical treatment at a facility like ours. Contact The Meadowglade today in order to learn how we can help!

Fight for yourself, not with yourself.

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