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Eating Disorders among Seniors Often Go Undetected or Misdiagnosed

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Your mom is getting older and she’s really starting to lose weight. At first you think it’s merely the side effects of aging, but then you begin to wonder – could something else be going on?

The answer could surprise you: Mom may be suffering from an eating disorder. In spite of the fact that we generally associate disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating with much younger people, experts say a growing number of seniors are being diagnosed with some of these conditions.  One study that was done a few years ago found that about one woman in eight over the age of 50 had some symptoms of eating disorders, with most trying to lose weight even when it was unhealthy to do so.

If you have a senior loved one in your life, we encourage you to read this recent article on the US News website. The article asks – and answers – the question, “Can Older People Have Eating Disorders?”  The subtitle definitely caught our eye: it reads, “Clinicians rarely detect the conditions in elderly patients, but they exist – and can be treated.” This article represents one more solid argument why every senior should have a geriatrician on his or her medical team – because it reflects the fact that “regular” doctors often miss the medical conditions that are unique to older adults. As you know if you are a regular reader of our blog or listener to our radio program, we at AgingOptions will gladly refer you to a geriatric physician in your area, to protect your health or the health of someone you love.

What is an eating disorder? According to the National Eating Disorders Association, these conditions are “psychiatric illnesses marked by extreme feelings and behaviors around weight and food.” Eating disorders can have life-threatening physical and mental consequences, especially for already-frail seniors. The US News article states, “While the conditions most commonly emerge in adolescence and early adulthood, middle-aged and older adults aren’t immune, particularly if they didn’t resolve body image issues earlier in life.” Sometimes the stresses associated with aging can trigger eating disorders.

What are some of these stresses? Doctors know that eating disorders can be exacerbated by body changes during adolescence or by the stress of constant relocation and job-related tensions in early and middle adulthood. As we reach retirement age, these emotional stress points can reoccur, set off by changes such as leaving our jobs, losing our friends to illness and death, and for many the pressures of serving as a caretaker to an aging spouse or family member. Author and eating disorder expert Margo Maine explains, “By the time women are … going through the psychological stressors of that time period … there’s a renewed desire to have something to control.” Maine adds, “The body is the way that we do that.” In other words, when a person’s life feels like it’s out of control, he or she will find something to control, even if that desire leads to dangerous disorders that can cause irreparable harm.

The challenge, says the article, is that it can be extremely hard for most clinicians to diagnose eating disorders in older adults. That’s partly because eating problems among seniors can be caused by many age-related conditions that are more common: dementia, or decline in tasting ability, or lack of access to healthy food choices. “What’s more,” US News reports, “few clinicians who work with older adults have the training or awareness to consider eating disorders a potential cause for general symptoms like weakness, dizziness or dehydration.” One doctor quoted for the article said physicians who evaluate health problems in older people have a tendency to look for anything but an eating disorder.

But it’s critical, geriatricians say, to recognize and properly diagnose eating disorders in seniors. Conditions like anorexia and bulimia require special treatment. However, to an untrained eye, the visible problems – a weak immune system, poor wound recovery, anxiety, cognitive impairment, weight loss, weakened muscles and bones, and an increased risk of falls – tend to be blamed on other, more common conditions of aging. US News suggests these three tips from experts on eating disorders among seniors.

First – don’t jump to conclusions. The older adult in your life may be losing weight or having trouble eating for any of several reasons. But don’t rule out an eating disorder, either. Instead, get an informed opinion from a geriatrician who knows what to look for.

Second – be careful when you approach your loved one about an eating problem. You don’t want them getting defensive or angry if you can help it. One suggestion is to begin by eating some meals with the senior in your family to see if they have difficult preparing or eating food. Be alert to comments about “getting fat” from a senior loved one who already appears thin.

Third – you can teach an older adult new strategies to help him or her enjoy eating once again. But if there seems to be an underlying issue with food, don’t assume it will resolve by itself. Your loved one may need to see a mental health professional. The US News article links to some helpful resources.

If you need helpful resources to plan for your retirement, look no further than AgingOptions and one of our LifePlanning Seminars. At these highly popular events you’ll learn about a comprehensive approach to retirement planning that blends every key element of retirement living: your financial plans, your legal protection, your housing choices, your medical coverage, and communication strategies with your family. A LifePlan will be your blueprint as you build the retirement you’ve always hoped for.

There’s a free LifePlanning Seminar coming soon to a location near you. Simply click here for dates, times and online registration. We’ll look forward to meeting you at an upcoming AgingOptions LifePlanning Seminar.

(originally reported at


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