Eating disorders have long been affiliated with populations ranging from the preteen-early 30’s age range. However, as with many physiological or psychological ailments, eating disorders don’t just vanish once an individual reaches a certain age. While numerous individuals recover from their eating disorder, many go on to live with them for the rest of their lives. Many individuals may even develop an eating disorder well into their 60’s!
Dr. Holly Grishkat is a site director for Philadelphia’s The Renfrew Center for Eating Disorders, where she also overlooks a “Thirty-Something and Beyond” program, for adults struggling with eating disorders. In an article for Today’s Geriatric Medicine, Dr. Grishkat mentions that many individuals who partake in the “Thirty-Something and Beyond” program have struggled with eating disorders for decades. “After 30 years, the eating disorder has become almost a personality characteristic for these women, as many of them define themselves by the eating disorder,” she says. The program also consists of individuals who have relapsed as well as those whose eating disorders developed at a later age.
While some symptoms and triggers may be similar between young and older populations affected by eating disorders, a Psychology Today article states that the two populations are affected by very different stressors. For instance, younger individuals are often affected by media standards, self-esteem issues, peer relations, or stressful experiences. Older adults, on the other hand, are affected by “the death of a spouse, parent or close friend or divorce, empty-nest, retirement and menopause” states Dr. Martina M. Cartwright.
However, geriatric eating disorders may not always be caused by the listed stressors. In a 2016 study, Francesco Landi et al. examines the anorexia of aging, which, as the name suggests, is the emergence of an anorexia-like state in older adults, due to the loss of appetite.
Landi attributes the loss of appetite to numerous factors some of which include: the deterioration of taste buds and olfactory receptors, hormonal changes, medical conditions and the resulting effects of medicine on food intake; difficulty chewing, mobility (diminished ability to cook or obtain food); and social isolation.
As with younger individuals, anorexia has drastic effects on the elderly, with some negative side effects being: malnutrition, poor bone health, weakness/ “frailty,” diminished mobility and physical capabilities, and death.
So how do we battle the anorexia of aging? Landi recommends increasing the quality and aesthetic of food as well as the ease of access (easier to consume/obtain). Additional suggestions include improvement of social interactions and medical treatment.
The seeming lack of focus on the struggles of older populations with eating disorders demonstrates the prevailing misconception that eating disorders only affect the young. The harrowing idea of an eating disorder shadowing an individual for decades or the severity of anorexia in the elderly calls for an increased awareness on this topic.
Cartwright, M. M. (2013, October 4). Does Grandma Have an Eating Disorder? Psychology Today. Retrieved September 20, 2018, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/food-thought/201310/does-grandma-have-eating-disorder
Landi, F., Calvani, R., Tosato, M., Martone, A. M., Ortolani, E., Savera, G., … Marzetti, E. (2016). Anorexia of Aging: Risk Factors, Consequences, and Potential Treatments. Nutrients, 8(2), 69. http://doi.org/10.3390/nu8020069
Schaeffer, J. (n.d.) Elder Eating Disorders: Surprising New Challenge. Today’s Geriatric Medicine. Retrieved September 20, 2018, from http://www.todaysgeriatricmedicine.com/news/exclusive_0409_03.shtml.