A new study confirms that 50 is the new 20, at least in terms of eating disorder rates: Researchers found that 13% of women over 50 have eating disorders–some for the first time in their lives–challenging the notion that eating disorders primarily effect young women and teens…along with the idea that today’s well-preserved celebrities and TV shows like ‘Sex and The City’ are empowering older women to celebrate age.
The study surveyed over 1,800 women over 50 (the average age was 59) about aging, body image, and weight loss, and found that 13.3% reported some symptoms of eating disorders. Perhaps even more depressing is the finding that 62% say their body’s weight or shape negatively impacts their lives, and 36% say they’ve spent half their time in the last five years dieting. With 53 million American women in the age group of the study, this means a lot of women are potentially dealing with problems related to weight, self-esteem, and disordered eating.
Cindy Bulik, director of the eating disorders program at the University of North Carolina and lead author of the study, explained:
The disorders have serious physical as well as emotional consequences. Part of my goal is to make this an issue all doctors need to be aware of regardless of a women’s age. Many think eating disorders end at age 25. They exist at every age, we’re finding.
Not surprisingly, many believe that the media is in large part responsible for women’s growing dissatisfaction with their bodies as they age. But Bulik also suspects that the life changes that occur for many women at this stage in life also trigger unhealthy behaviors:
We ask the question, what are the triggers to mid- and late- life eating disorders? They’re talking about divorce, loss, children leaving home, children coming home, being in the sandwich generation when you’re taking care of children and your parents. Food can be seen as a way to regulate mood during these times.
On the other hand, Bulik found that some women seem better able to reach a stage of “enlightenment” as they age–looking past their weight and appearances and focusing instead a healthy diet, getting exercise, and overall happiness.
The images we see of young women in the media and Hollywood are narrow enough; it’s that much harder to find examples of female role models in their 50s and 60s. Where they do exist, they’re often anomalies: women who’ve aged particularly “well” (i.e. in keeping with beauty standards set for women several decades younger) and are celebrated for looking several years younger than their actual age. Until we see more images of older women in general, and especially a more diverse set of women in the 50-plus age range, it doesn’t seem the problem is going to go away anytime soon.