Anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders in midlife and beyond

Carolyn Schatz

Former Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

Most people think that eating disorders afflict only adolescents and young women. Not so—they plague older women, too, and may be shrouded in even greater shame and secrecy. Many women don’t seek help, especially if they fear being forced to gain weight or stigmatized as having a “teenager’s disease.”

As we write in the February 2012 Harvard Women’s Health Watch, clinicians are reporting an upswing in requests from older women for help with eating disorders. For some of these women, the problem is new; others have struggled with anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, or another eating disorder for decades.

Surveys in Australia have charted a tripling or quadrupling of the percentage of people age 65 and older with an eating disorder. Researchers at Oregon Health & Science University have found that women ages 65 to 80 were just as likely as young adult women to feel fat or concerned about their body shape.

This dissatisfaction matters. People with eating disorders are usually intensely unhappy about their body shape and size. A negative body image can suggest or prefigure a full-blown eating disorder—or what doctors call a subclinical problem, in which a woman never becomes alarmingly thin but organizes her life around food and weight control.

Eating problems at midlife and beyond stem from a variety of causes. These range from grief and divorce to illness and shifting priorities. Heightened awareness of an aging body is another contributor. This can be especially problematic when a woman returns to school or work, or needs to keep working past the traditional retirement age, especially in fields where looks may be important.

“As our society values youth and as baby boomers reinvent what it means to be middle-aged, there are growing social forces that can undermine older women’s self-esteem and potentially lead to body dissatisfaction,” psychiatrist Anne E. Becker told us. “That, combined with health concerns about obesity, can make people feel bad about their bodies and, in turn, could result in eating strategies that undermine well-being,” says Becker, who directs the Eating Disorders Clinical and Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital and president of the Academy for Eating Disorders.

Food and you

Could concerns about your body image or your relationship with food be crowding out other important parts of your life? Take a look at the questions below. If you answer yes to one or more of them, try to shift your conversations and mental energy away from food and body awareness. If this proves difficult, consider consulting a mental health professional.

  • Do you worry about your body and aging more than your friends do? What efforts do you make to hide these changes?
  • If you had the choice between living an extra five years and attaining your perfect weight, would you pick attaining your perfect weight?
  • Do you and your friends spend a lot of time discussing diets, weight, your looks, gym routines, etc.?
  • Does the number on the scale determine your mood for the day?
  • Do you spend an inordinate amount of time planning what to eat and not to eat and how to get enough exercise?
  • Do you gravitate toward health regimens that involve purging or restricting food—for example, going gluten- or yeast-free, becoming a vegan, fasting, or doing colonics or cleanses?

You can read the complete article on eating disorders in midlife and beyond on the Harvard Women’s Health Watch Web site. It covers types of eating disorders, explores possible causes, looks at treatment options, and provides resources for more information.

If you developed an eating disorder in middle age, let us know how you noticed it and how you are handling it.

Related Information: Harvard Women’s Health Watch


  1. Kate Clinton

    I was being under weight for my teenager life, though I’m very active, but I don’t miss my meals, and I was very depressed. Now I’m 24 having problem in over weight, and yes I worked in the office and it looks its hard to lose weight and gain.

    • Alfred Bellanti

      Hi Kate!

      A technique introduced by Herbert Benson MD was to use “remembered wellness”.

      Take some time out for yourself, and recall a time when you were at an ideal weight and you felt great about it. Get right into the memory of it. Live it again in your mind, then relax into the memory.

      Whatever resources you used at that time to get you to that ideal weight are in that memory, deep in your unconscious.

      Spend enough time using this technique and you will become aware of the resources you used at the time.

      Now you just use the same resources again to get back to your ideal weight.

      • Preshemie

        Hi Carolyn,

        I found your content very interesting, and i will definitely be recommending it to my readers.

        I also want to share about this disorder, it has affected a large number of youngsters. It has spread all over the world. Mostly it affects youngsters. Main reason it not to take complete diet means basic diet daily. Our body has some basic needs which we should take in our daily routine, but in these days youngsters ignore it to keep them lean and slim. you can see the lack of sleep, fatigued and anemic problem in the patient.

        Healthy diet is must to keep healthy!

  2. Susan

    I am 59 yrs old, and I am in my third year of recovery from severe anorexia. I was 48 at the time I was diagnosed. Along with severe depression, I think I have always had a form of disordered eating. I always thought that eating disorders only occurs in young women. I almost died twice from it. I think that the fact that my mother died at an early age from complications of morbid obesity, although I was no where near obese. After years of intense treatment and sheer determination, I am now solidly in my recovery. I have been in treatment with all ages women and men 12-75

  3. Dentist Mississauga

    I am 62 and have found that all my working life that I could only work independently, outside of a structured environment because I have difficulty focusing. Probably some form of ADD; although when I was growing up this condition was not considered or identified as such. At times when I really need to focus, I find that sugar in the form of candy really helps, providing me a short term boost for concentrating. However, this can lead to periods of candy binges. I appreciate this is not good for me, yet it is my way of coping.
    Recently, because of health concerns, and awareness of diabetes, I have sought a solution by taking a body detox regimen. I found that the results from this were quite envigorating.
    My wife who took the same body detox regimen had extraordinary results. She has suffered from severe asthma and allergies all her life, requiring weekly shots to cope. Since our taking the first body detox she hasn’t suffered from allergies and no longer needs her weekly shots.

  4. Anonymous

    People with eating disorders are usually intensely unhappy about their body shape and size. A negative body image can suggest or prefigure a full-blown eating disorder—or what doctors call a subclinical problem, in which a woman never becomes alarmingly thin but organizes her life around food and weight control.

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