February has been designated as National Eating Disorders Awareness Month, and while you might think that eating disorders are limited to teenagers and young adults, the number of seniors who have eating disorders has steadily been increasing. In many cases, these are not new, emerging situations, but they actually developed during younger years and were left untreated during all the years leading up to becoming a senior. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the particular eating disorders impacting seniors, and how these situations should be handled.
What are eating disorders?
As defined by the Mayo Clinic, eating disorders are continuous behaviors related to food intake that can have a major adverse impact on a person’s overall health, as well as their ability to function normally. These behaviors typically develop during teen years or early adulthood and are allowed to persist throughout adulthood, right on into a person’s senior years. The most common types of eating disorders, including those that affect seniors, are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorders. In the case of most seniors, it happens fairly often that these eating disorders developed at a much younger age, but that treatment is only sought in later years.
Eating disorders in seniors
Given that the majority of senior eating disorders appear to have first developed during youth, it becomes apparent that many seniors with eating disorders have been suffering from the condition for years. Sometimes these disorders will go into remission for a time and cause no issues, but they will generally return and be just as bad as the original case. Better education and awareness are responsible for seniors finally reaching out for treatment since many were unaware during youth that this was even a problem.
A recent study examined hundreds of cases of elderly eating disorders and found that 81% of seniors with an eating disorder were troubled by anorexia nervosa. In comparison, 10% had bulimia nervosa, and 9% had a binge-eating disorder. These percentages probably hold true for the larger population in the US, since anorexia nervosa is the more common of the types of disorders.
This disorder is characterized by an intense fear of gaining weight, and it frequently causes victims to lose more weight than is healthy for their body type and their age. The reason a person acquires this intense weight-gain fear is most often attributed to the fact they have a distorted image of themselves and consider themselves too fat to be socially acceptable. Because they feel this way, they go on extreme diets, over-exercise, and sometimes use extreme methods to lose weight, including purging after meals.
Sometimes simply called bulimia, this disorder generally calls for the victim to be bingeing on food for a time, and then wanting to purge those extra calories taken in. Most of the time, these large amounts of food are ingested secretly, because the victim is very sensitive about their appearance and their body weight in particular. It triggers a dangerous cycle of over-eating and purging that can lead to a number of heart-related issues, especially in the case of seniors. Seniors do not have the youthful ability to handle these sudden massive fluctuations of incoming calories and purged calories, and it can put a severe strain on the heart.
The role of caretakers
Caretakers can play a very important role in helping a senior manage an eating disorder, beginning with recognizing the symptoms when they appear in senior charges. Often, this will happen when a senior refuses to eat a meal or multiple meals, declaring that they are already too full from a previous meal or they simply aren’t hungry. Since eating disorders are usually triggered because a person has a negative self-image of their weight, they have a strong aversion to taking in any more food than is absolutely necessary. In the case of bulimia, this will be slightly different because there will be alternating periods of bingeing and purging.
Recognizing the symptoms of an eating disorder is made more difficult because victims are often very secretive about their behaviors, and make every effort to hide bingeing or purging from others. Some facilities like assisted living centers simply are not equipped with the personnel to deal with such disorders and are therefore obliged to avoid any kind of treatment.
Impact of eating disorders on the elderly
While many seniors actually contract eating disorders at a much younger age, the senior is not as well equipped to deal with the condition in their later years. Their bodies are not nearly as resilient as they were at a younger age, and the eating disorder amounts to self-abuse. Any kind of eating disorder will take a major toll on all body parts and all body systems, and that can quickly lead to major health issues. For these reasons, there is some real urgency in raising awareness about eating disorders, so they can be treated at a younger age, well before a person reaches their later years.