Anorexia Nervosa and Older Women: Causes and Treatment Options

Women are working out and eating better well into their later years. While this is good news, it can sometimes put an excessive amount of pressure on many women to stay thin as they age. While anorexia nervosa is sometimes thought of as a condition that primarily affects teenagers, it can affect people of any age. Different strategies are used for anorexia nervosa treatment for older women due to the different causes and effects in this age group. Anorexia nervosa recovery can be achieved through a variety of methods at a quality anorexia nervosa treatment center.

An increasing number of older women have been diagnosed with several types of eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa disorder. According to the University of Utah, there are a combination of factors that can lead to anorexia nervosa including psychological, biochemical, genetic and interpersonal. It is also important to understand the symptoms of anorexia nervosa may be different in this population and that treatment options and therapy for anorexia nervosa that work for younger individuals may not be as effective for women that are older.

Increase in Anorexia Nervosa in Older Women

Doctors and health professionals may not always as easily recognize the signs of anorexia nervosa in older women. A physician may see unexplained weight changes as a symptom of a host of other ailments or perhaps the side-effect of particular medications. Since anorexia nervosa is one of the most serious psychiatric disorders, it is crucial that the symptoms and signs of this condition are recognized, an anorexia nervosa diagnosis is made by a medical professional and that effective treatment is implemented as soon as possible.

While some women may have struggled with eating disorders earlier in life and experienced a period of eating disorder recovery, some may have only recently developed difficulties with food. Symptoms of anorexia nervosa often include dramatic weight loss, excessive food restrictions, concerns about eating in public and increased lethargy.

Causes of Anorexia Nervosa in Older Women

There are several reasons there has been an increase in eating disorders among women over 40. The following are a few of the reasons a woman may struggle with an eating disorder, and in particular anorexia nervosa, later in life.

  • Traumatic Events:A variety of difficult, life-altering events may lead a woman to develop an eating disorder. Divorce, loss of a parent and career difficulties can all be events that cause a variety of eating disorders. A traumatic event may result in depression, loneliness and lowered self-esteem, which in turn may trigger feelings of dissatisfaction with appearance and body size.
  • Major Life Transitions:Most women in their forties, fifties and beyond will experience several major transitions in life while in this age range. Many women will see their children leave home and will sometimes be caring for aging parents. While these types of changes are considered normal events, they can at times be difficult adjustments. These transitions and events can be extremely stressful and can be a trigger for eating disorders.
  • Later Pregnancy:Many women are postponing pregnancy into their late thirties and beyond. Returning to a post-pregnancy body can be more difficult as women age and this may contribute to dissatisfaction and poor body image. It is important to note, an anorexia nervosa diagnosis can be made during pregnancy. Additionally, as hormones can dramatically affect a woman physically and emotionally at any age, they may also be the cause of increased body displeasure in older women.
  • Age-Related Issues:Many women may feel pressure to maintain a certain body image past the age that it is realistic to do so. Women will usually go through menopause in their forties or fifties. This change can be subtle and almost imperceptible for some women, while it can bring on many extreme changes for others. Menopause can make it more difficult to maintain a pre-menopause body shape. This struggle with a changing body can contribute to frustration and, potentially, the development of an eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa.
  • Geriatric Concerns:At times anorexia nervosa disorder manifests itself in the elderly years and may be directly related to advanced age. Depression, lack of interest in life or dissatisfaction with living arrangements can all be factors in the development of anorexia nervosa in a woman’s later years. Certain conditions, such as chronic infections and malabsorption syndromes, that can be associated with older persons can contribute to or even cause anorexia nervosa.
  • Medical Complications:When approaching middle age, many individuals may begin to experience serious health conditions such as increased blood pressure, higher cholesterol and diabetes. In an effort to limit or minimize the potential for complications from these sorts of conditions, people may attempt to lose weight in unhealthy ways. Pressure to do so may even inadvertently be initiated by those in the medical community. A woman may be told if she loses a few pounds she might be able to bring her blood pressure down or avoid having to take certain medications. This can lead to increased restriction and the potential development of an eating disorder.
  • Unrealistic Expectations:Eating disorders skyrocketed in the seventies and eighties. Many of the women that were in high school and college during this time period are now in middle age. Many of the models and celebrities they grew up admiring still appear youthful and thin. It is well known that celebrities have the time and resources most women do not to devote to maintaining a certain look. This fact, however, does not seem to take away the desire to remain unrealistically thin as a woman ages. It is important to note that unrealistic expectations can manifest themselves at any age.

Related Behaviors

A woman struggling with anorexia nervosa may begin to alter her daily life and exhibit certain behaviors sometimes associated with the disorder. When considering anorexia nervosa treatment it is important to take into consideration any related behaviors.

  • Extreme ExerciseAARP reports that excessive exercise may be one avenue a woman takes to maintain an ideal body shape during middle age. Since a woman’s metabolism may slow considerably as she ages, it may take an excessive amount of exercise to maintain the desired weight. Since exercise, in general, is regarded as positive, it may also be difficult to spot extreme behavior in this particular area.
  • Excessive Weight Management:Anorexia nervosa may begin to manifest itself with the desire to lose a few pounds and quickly get out of control. The individual may embark on new or even dangerous eating programs in order to maintain the desired weight.
  • Plastic Surgery:Some women turn to plastic surgery to maintain a thin, attractive figure. Excessive amounts of plastic surgery, or even becoming addicted to plastic surgery, may exacerbate the symptoms and behaviors associated with anorexia nervosa.
  • Addiction:Drug addiction, especially to stimulants, may accompany an eating disorder. There are certain prescriptions that may aid in weight loss that a woman may seek out from her physician. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), approximately 50 percent of individuals with some type of eating disorder have abused illicit drugs or alcohol.

Treatment Options for Older Women

Because of careers and family obligations, it can be more difficult for women to commit to an effective anorexia nervosa treatment program. Women who are independent, successful and in charge of their lives may believe they should be able to control the condition with willpower and perseverance. It is important to remember that an eating disorder is an illness and that treatment and anorexia nervosa recovery should be regarded accordingly.

While anorexia nervosa can take a devastating toll on the body at any age, it can be even more difficult for a woman to recover as she ages. According to the National Institutes of Health, anorexia nervosa can commonly cause metabolic and endocrine complications. Limited nutrition intake can be even more problematic for geriatric aged women. Their bodies simply aren’t as resilient, and they may be more susceptible to a variety of medical conditions; these can include malnutrition, edema, osteoporosis, limited muscle mass, electrolyte imbalances and cardiac arrest. An effective anorexia nervosa treatment center will be able to address these medical concerns.

After receiving an anorexia nervosa diagnosis it is important to find qualified professional treatment. When looking for a treatment program it is necessary to find a facility that offers customized treatment plans. No matter a person’s age, it is crucial to create an individualized treatment program that meets the specific needs of each particular person. Whether it is day treatment or residential treatment, it is necessary to find a facility that can provide the best level of care for a full recovery. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states there are several potential methods used to treat anorexia nervosa; including, but not limited to:

  • Psychotherapy:Psychotherapy is a type of counseling that will work to change harmful behavior and the negative thoughts that can lead to disordered During therapy, an emphasis is placed on talking about how the individual feels and how these feelings affect behavior. A client may work individually with her therapist or in a group setting. Psychotherapy can be part of an inpatient or outpatient program.
  • Nutrition Therapy:A variety of health professionals, including nurses and dietitians, will work with a woman to plan an eating program that fits her individual needs. Choosing food and learning to eat in an appropriate manner will often need to be monitored. The specific nutritional needs of older women will also need to be addressed. For example, since the loss of bone density is often a symptom of anorexia nervosa and older women naturally lose bone density, adding calcium and bone building supplements will likely be recommended. Building a more positive relationship with food is an important and continuous step in the healing process.
  • Support Groups:Being part of a support group can help women find others who have also worked through recovery. Finding and connecting to other women who are at the same stage of life and are experiencing similar struggles can provide the strength and support a woman needs on the road to The group leader should be mindful of the potential for recurring symptoms of anorexia nervosa amongst group participants.

Maintaining a Positive Recovery

We need to be mindful of the potential to relapse in this population. While treating and recovering from anorexia nervosa can be a complex process at any age, an older woman will often face obstacles that a younger person will not. Younger individuals will often be living with their parents during recovery and may receive considerable supervision. A woman who is living on her own or even with her family will often not have another adult supporting her through the process of recovery. Oftentimes there is a greater sense of guilt or shame in that an older woman may feel since she is older and more mature, she should be able to work through this condition on her own.

It is important to maintain a positive recovery long after therapy for anorexia nervosa has ended. Building and maintaining self-esteem, self-reliance and a strong support system are important components of the eating disorder recovery process. While it is important to focus on creating a natural relationship with eating and food choices, it is also just as critical to strengthen communication skills and learn how to interact with others in a positive manner.

Anorexia nervosa treatment centers, such as Oliver-Pyatt Centers, offer customized treatment plans and therapy for anorexia nervosa that include thorough medical management, individualized psychotherapy and comprehensive care in a beautiful and home-like environment. Providing compassionate care along with the tools to succeed, Oliver-Pyatt Centers can guide a woman through the process of anorexia nervosa recovery.