Addictions — 29 April 2012

Body dissatisfaction concerns and extreme dieting have been previously assumed to be most commonly occurring among female teenagers and young women. Recent research has confirmed the increased prevalence of eating disorders in middle aged and even older adults.

Anorexia Nervosa, the distorted body perception and self- deprivation of food for the sake of an improved bodily image, has been associated most commonly with young women. It has been related to issues of psychological maturation, social pressures and the quest for control in the face of perceived disempowerment.

Professors Stanley Coran and Paul Hewitt reviewed 10.5 million U.S. death certificates and confirmed that the diagnosis of Anorexia Nervosa was reported as a cause of death in elderly people at a higher rate than previously thought. The average age of death for women due to anorexia was 69 for women and 80 for men.

Professor Marion Hetherington’s study found that older, normal weight women exhibited dietary restraints and eating attitudes that were similar to their younger counterparts. Despite their normal weight, her study’s participants of all ages attempted to lose weight at a comparable rate.

Though there seems to be greater social pressure on women to comply with the standard of lean weight, the psychological factors contributing to food restriction as a measure of self-discipline and documented control are not gender specific. Issues of lack of autonomy, forced dependency, role identity struggles and loneliness plague teenagers, adults and seniors alike.

The powerlessness associated with restricted autonomy may be even more devastating for older people who used to be self-directed and accomplished contributors to society than it is for teenagers who still have the hope of freedom from parental control.

For the older population restricted food consumption is a major health hazard. Elders may become dizzy, forgetful, disoriented, at risk for falls and suffer a reduced ability to heal from any medical condition. Families are often slow to identify the volitional intake deprivation since they assume it is normal for an older person’s appetite to decrease and their system to require less food.

Reduction in food intake may also be a symptom of depression. Family members may believe that depression is a normal emotional reaction to life’s losses with age. Thus, they accept these changes as normal and may miss the clues of a serious life threatening condition that requires urgent medical attention.

Monitor your and your loved one’s health:

¨     Accept that Anorexia Nervosa can occur at any age in both young and mature women and men.

¨     Identify unusual and ongoing weight loss of your loved one as a possible life threatening disease that requires prompt medical attention.

¨     Know that aging is not a sufficient explanation for lack of appetite, depression, helplessness or secret suicidal thoughts.

¨     Monitor your own weight fluctuations, self-talk about your body, your relationship to food, your mood and sense of wellbeing.

¨     Be alert to your own thoughts and food habits. You may save a life!

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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