Previously, eating disorders largely affected women and children, especially teenagers. It was considered a disease of the privileged and the young. Today, this is no longer the case as they affect anyone at any time regardless of their age, race, ethnicity, or gender.
A Cambridge University research showed that 20% of women over the age of 70 were dieting. Although elderly women are affected more than men, another study found that 86% of the participants had an eating disorder before the age of 20 and only 50% recovered. The study indicated that most continued to struggle with an eating disorder in their old age.
Eating disorders among older adults have become a significant issue due to the multiple causes of unexpected weight loss that is accompanied by aging. In addition to this, psychological or behavioral issues also fuel eating disorders among seniors.
Types of Eating Disorders
Binging refers to eating an excessive amount of food. An individual suffering from binge eating has a strong compulsion to eat large amounts of foods quickly. For older adults, hoarding food is one sign that they are binge eating.
Characterized by eating large amounts of food, bulimia nervosa is followed by purging the food. Purging can be through vomiting or laxatives. Excessive exercises are also used to get rid of the extra calories consumed. Older adults are at a higher risk of severe complications due to age and underlying medical conditions. Bulimia Nervosa can result in kidney and heart damage.
This is the fear of gaining weight caused by a distorted perception of body weight. Individuals tend to take extreme measures to prevent weight gain or to lose weight. Seniors struggling from this disorder could end up starving themselves or avoiding crucial nutrient-dense foods.
Causes of Eating Disorders in Older Adults
Reasons for developing eating disorders in older adults can be similar to those of younger individuals. However, two critical reasons can lead to an eating disorder:
Underlying Medical Problem
Seniors suffering from a medical condition could be at risk of an eating disorder. Some conditions tend to take a toll on the body and it could affect their appetite or desire for food. Medications can also stimulate or hinder their appetite. Loss of teeth due to tooth decay can also result in an eating disorder. Other causes have been a fear of medical conditions, where older adults either suffer from anorexia or bulimia nervosa to avoid medical issues such as obesity or heart disease.
Social media has created unrealistic body image expectations and this has affected older adults. There is increasing pressure for individuals, especially women to stay thin and youthful even in old age. Modern society has also created a false perception of diet through restricting certain foods, trying fad diets to lose weight fast, and the rise of mukbangs where individuals eat a large amount of food for entertainment purposes. Such practices significantly impact our dietary choices.
Signs of Eating Disorders in Older Adults
Diagnosing signs of eating disorders in older adults can be challenging as most live alone and can conceal certain habits. However, here are some eating disorder signs you can identify in an older adult:
- Changes in their behavior like disappearing after eating or wanting to eat alone.
- Excessive hair loss or increasingly feeling cold.
- Significant weight gain or weight loss in a short period.
- Increasing food bills, disappearing food, or excessive food wastage.
- Medical issues such as dementia, gastrointestinal issues, dental and heart problems.
- Mental health problems such as depression.
Treating Eating Disorders in Older Adults
There are numerous forms of treatment for eating disorders in older adults. These include:
Psychological and Pharmacological Interventions
Combining both behavioral interventions and pharmacological interventions is more effective than focusing on food choices and weight loss. Counseling can also help in coping with issues such as depression, low self-esteem, anger, and anxiety. Giving practical advice and offering support, especially for dementia patients through explaining the benefits of the food or showing them pictures to stimulate memories.
For seniors who are unable to prepare meals for themselves or require supervision during meals, the option of a caregiver can go a long way. Professional caregivers will assist with meal planning and preparation while working with a nutritionist. Physical care also goes a long way in ensuring that the effects of the eating disorder do not affect other organs.
Related Article: Home Care Services: Meal Planning and Preparation
Family and Social Support
Families can be involved in the recovery process by helping them understand the support they should offer their loved ones. They need to understand that eating disorders are mental illnesses and force-feeding can worsen the condition. Joining a support group for adults who live by themselves can also help in the recovery process. Engaging in social activities such as dining with others helps seniors become more socially active and this could help them make better dietary choices.
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