Randolph, Mass. — It’s not just teenage girls who are willing to starve themselves or “binge and purge” in order to become as thin as the movie stars and fashion models they admire. Today, more and more women in their 40s, 50s, and 60s are seeking help for eating disorders they have developed as they battle slowing metabolisms and thickening waistlines.
"A growing number of older women are developing eating disorders or have hidden them for years," confirms Lauren Solotar, Ph.D., ABPP, May Institute’s Chief Executive Officer and a clinical psychologist who has specialized in the treatment of eating and anxiety disorders.
It is estimated that more than 10 million females in the United States have either anorexia or bulimia. About 25 million more are struggling with binge eating disorder. Although most of these individuals are teenagers or young adults, some are older women.
"Since approximately 45 percent of this country’s women are on a diet on any given day, it’s not surprising that some dieters cross over the line from weight-watching to unhealthy eating obsessions," Dr. Solotar says. "In fact, a study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders reported that 35 percent of normal dieters progress to pathological dieting, and 20-25 percent of those dieters progress to partial or full-syndrome eating disorders."
The most common eating disorders are: anorexia nervosa, a life-threatening disorder in which the individual practices self-starvation; bulimia, or bulimia nervosa, characterized by a cycle of binge eating and then purging with self-induced vomiting and/or laxative abuse or starvation; and binge eating disorder (BED), a type of eating disorder characterized by recurrent binge eating without regular "purging" behaviors such as vomiting or laxative use.
Causes of Eating Disorders
According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), eating disorders are complex conditions that develop due to a variety of factors, including physical, psychological, interpersonal, and social issues. Scientists are still researching possible biochemical or biological causes.
Psychological factors that affect eating disorders include: low self-esteem; feelings of inadequacy or lack of control; depression; anxiety; anger; and/or loneliness. Interpersonal factors include: troubled family and personal relationships; difficulty expressing emotions and feelings; history of being teased about size or weight; and history of physical and/or sexual abuse.
Social factors include cultural pressures to be thin and "perfect" and cultural norms that value people on the basis of physical appearance rather than inner qualities. In recent years, the societal pressure to be not only thin but also physically fit has contributed to the increased prevalence of eating disorders.
In addition, the average weight of the American woman has increased over the past 15 years, while the desired body size has decreased. For example, the average American model is 5’ 11” tall and weighs 117 pounds, while the average American woman is 5’ 4” tall and weighs 140 pounds. This widening discrepancy between actual weight and ideal weight may also be a contributing factor to the development of eating disorders.
To avoid dire health consequences, a person with a life-threatening eating disorder needs a strong medical team, consisting of a physician with experience in eating disorders, a psychiatrist, a nutritionist, and a therapist. "A good therapist will work closely with the treatment team, develop a plan to restore the client to a ‘healthy’ weight, and establish firm limits," Dr. Solotar explains. "He or she will make sure the patient is eating and arrange for hospitalization, if the case is severe."
According to Dr. Solotar, the best therapeutic approach for serious eating disorders is the cognitive behavioral approach that assesses and monitors thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that lead to mental health illnesses such as anorexia. Adjunct family therapy and psychopharmacology may also be necessary.
Lauren C. Solotar, Ph.D., ABPP, is the Chief Executive Officer of May Institute and a licensed psychologist who specializes in the treatment of eating and anxiety disorders.
About May Counseling Centers
May Counseling Centers in Walpole and West Roxbury offer caring, effective state-of-the-art emotional and psychological services to children, adolescents, and adults. At MCC, highly trained professionals provide specialized clinical care for key emotional and behavioral concerns including anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders, women's issues, and school and learning difficulties. For more information, call 800-778-7601 or visit www.mayinstitute.org.