June 21, 2012 -- Eating disorders don't just strike teens. A new survey shows that middle-aged women binge, purge, and engage in extreme exercise and dieting about as often as adolescents do.
"Strikingly, things are as bad in this age group as they are in the younger age groups. I was sort of gobsmacked that 8% reported purging in the last five years," says researcher Cynthia M. Bulik, PhD, director of the University of North Carolina Eating Disorders Program, in Chapel Hill.
Additionally, Bulik says, 3.5% of women older than 50 reported binge eating within the last month, a percentage that is "spot on for the younger population."
Sixty-two percent of the nearly 1,900 women who participated in the Internet-based survey said their weight or shape negatively impacted their life. "That's really sad," Bulik says.
Experts who were not involved in the research said the study is valuable because it supports earlier work suggesting that eating disorders are a problem across the lifespan.
"Very little work has been conducted to understand eating pathology in older women who may have unique needs in relation to developing and maintaining a healthy body image and healthy approach to weight regulation," Pamela Keel, PhD, a professor and clinical psychologist who specializes in treating eating disorders at Florida State University in Tallahassee, says in an email to WebMD.
The study is published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.
Many in Their 50s Are Battling Eating Disorders for the First Time
In some cases, women with eating disorders in mid-life have struggled with their weight and body image before and are relapsing after a period of recovery.
But in many cases, Bulik says, women are bingeing, purging, exercising for hours, or not eating enough for the first time in their lives.
"Part of that is '70 is the new 50,'" she says. "We have to keep our body looking 20 years younger than it actually is, and that's an enormous amount of pressure for these women. That's what sort of puts them on this slippery slope. They see the distance between what's happening to themselves, their body and the societal ideal, and then they start engaging in really unhealthy weight control practices," Bulik says.
The average age of study participants was 59, and 92% were white.
About a third of women reported spending at least half their time in the last five years dieting.
Other weight control methods reported in the study included:
Based on their BMI, 1.6% were underweight, a symptom indicative of anorexia.
Eating Disorders May Be Harder on Older Bodies
Though she doesn't yet have research to back this up, Bulik thinks eating disorders may be more damaging when they occur later in life.
"Eating disorders take a terrible toll on someone's body," she says. "Older bodies are less resilient."
To compound that problem, many clinicians don't recognize the symptoms of eating disorders in older women, or they chalk up symptoms like missing periods to natural changes like menopause.
"There's some stereotype erasure that we have to do," she says. "We have to change the picture in our minds of who gets these things."