Mid-Life Eating Disorders Are on the Rise in Older Women

Eating disorders are usually associated with teenagers and young adults, but new research finds that they’re also a problem in older women.

The study, which was published in the journal Menopause, analyzed data from more than 35 participants who participated in a larger clinical trial. The researchers found that body dissatisfaction—both shape and weight—was a big reason why the women, who were 45 to 61, developed disordered eating habits. 

The researchers also discovered that women going through perimenopause (the phase before menopause) and women who were just past menopause were more likely to say that they were afraid to gain weight or felt that they were losing control of their eating habits. 

Betsy Brenner, author of The Longest Match: Rallying to Defeat an Eating Disorder in Mid-Life, knows this fear first-hand. Brenner says she was diagnosed with anorexia in her mid-40s after asthma made her constantly sidelined from playing tennis. 

“It was the perfect storm,” she says. “I was diagnosed with pretty severe asthma and it felt out of control.” Brenner, who played Division I tennis in college, says she had recently gotten back into playing the sport. “I developed this intense fear of gaining weight and my asthma would take me off the court—it created a lot of anxiety.” 

But it wasn’t until her doctor noticed that she had lost about 10 pounds off her already small frame that she underwent further testing that resulted in a diagnosis of anorexia. “I was consumed by thoughts about food and exercise all day, every day,” recalls Brenner. “But I was very functional. I didn’t realize I was headed down a dangerous path.”

Brenner says she was “shocked” by her diagnosis. “I remember thinking, I’m in my 40s. How can I have anorexia?” Brenner ended up learning more about the condition and its connection with her mental health. She started seeing a registered dietitian for nutritional therapy, along with a therapist for cognitive behavioral therapy who specializes in eating disorders. “I had several years of having that safe space to allow myself to be vulnerable,” she says. 

Brenner says she’s now “able to be fully present,” adding that she’s “worked really hard to disconnect food and exercise.” She also volunteers with the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) to help others going through a similar journey. 

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