An Ageless Affliction: The Increasing Prevalence of Eating Disorders in Adults

Written by: Angela Derrick, Ph.D. & Susan McClanahan, Ph.D.

Date Posted: August 8, 2023 11:53 am

An Ageless Affliction: The Increasing Prevalence of Eating Disorders in Adults

An Ageless Affliction: The Increasing Prevalence of Eating Disorders in Adults


Eating disorders have long been associated with the young, especially teenagers. However, recent studies show that eating disorders, an ageless affliction, are rising among older adults. The results may surprise you, but they emphasize the need for increased awareness and understanding of this issue across all age groups.

An Ageless Affliction: Understanding Eating Disorders

What are Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions that involve disturbances in eating behaviors, often associated with intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted body image.

Types of Eating Disorders
Different types of eating disorders exist, such as Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge Eating Disorder.

Prevalence of Eating Disorders by Age Group and Gender

Eating disorders are found across all age groups, affecting both men and women. While traditionally associated with young women, recent data suggests an alarming rise in eating disorders among older adults and males.

Eating Disorders in the Over 40 Population

Rising Prevalence among Older Adults

Eating disorders are recognized as among the deadliest of mental health illnesses. More older adults are experiencing eating disorders or belatedly being identified, a worrying trend that calls for attention. 

Common Types of Eating Disorders among Older Adults

While Anorexia, Bulimia, and Binge Eating Disorders are prevalent, other disorders like Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorders (OSFED) are also increasing among the older population. Research indicates the prominence of anorexia nervosa as the most frequently diagnosed eating disorder among the elderly. 

Why are Eating Disorders Growing in the Older Population?

Factors such as societal pressures, health concerns, and life transitions play a significant role.  Additionally, many individuals with eating disorders in midlife have been battling eating disorders for years and may continue to live with these conditions which have either been resistant to treatment efforts or never identified. 

The Hidden Crisis: Eating Disorders in Males

Prevalence and Types of Eating Disorders in Men

Though less acknowledged, men are increasingly struggling with eating disorders. Understanding their prevalence and types is crucial for early intervention. Men face unique challenges, including underdiagnosis, societal stigma, and a lack of gender-specific treatment approaches, similar challenges facing the older population.

Disordered Eating vs. Eating Disorders

Understanding Disordered Eating

Disordered eating includes a range of abnormal eating behaviors that may not meet the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder but can still negatively impact health and quality of life. In older adults, disordered eating might be overlooked or misinterpreted as age-related changes, leading to delayed treatment.

Questions & Answers

What’s the difference between disordered eating and an eating disorder?While they share similarities, the intensity, duration, and impacts on daily life differentiate eating disorders from disordered eating.
Are eating disorders curable?Yes, proper treatment makes a recovery from eating disorders possible at any age.
Are males less likely to develop eating disorders?No, the misconception that males are less susceptible has contributed to underdiagnosis and delay in treatment.
How does age impact the risk of developing eating disorders?Aging can bring about life changes and health concerns that might trigger eating disorders, making older adults vulnerable.
Are older adults less likely to recover from an eating disorder?No, recovery is possible at any age. However, early diagnosis and intervention improve the chances of recovery.
Why is there an increase in eating disorders among older adults?The reasons are multifaceted, including societal pressure to remain youthful, health concerns, and life transitions like retirement or losing loved ones.
Let's Meet Mary: A Case Study

Let’s Meet Mary: A Case Study

 A Silent Struggle – Mary’s Battle with Anorexia Nervosa

Mary, now 66, lives with an unwelcome companion – anorexia nervosa. She has carried this burden for over five decades but has never been officially diagnosed.

Born into a white, middle-class family, Mary holds the middle spot among seven siblings. Her hardworking parents nurtured an environment of ambition and high expectations. Mary, a naturally high achiever, was no stranger to these standards.

At 14, a transformative age, Mary’s world began to spin around popularity, thinness, and social acceptance, much like her high school friends. She was an excellent student and had a natural talent for tennis. But this was also when her silent struggle with disordered eating began to take shape.

Looking back, Mary identifies this period as the genesis of her eating disorder. She began to consume food, only to expel it soon after – a classic symptom of bulimia nervosa. The triggers, she recalls, were often high-stress situations like exams and tennis competitions. The intense pressure to succeed academically and shine on the tennis court sparked an internal battle with her self-image and relationship with food.

As the years passed, Mary’s disordered eating morphed into a more insidious form—anorexia nervosa. Striving for perfection and contending with societal expectations, Mary began to deny herself the essential nutrition her body needed. Her pursuit of thinness became a quest for control, an illusion of achieving success and fitting into the societal mold. Even with her internal turmoil, Mary’s eating disorder remained undiagnosed. She did not seek help.

Adding to Mary’s narrative, her dates would often jest about her frequent bathroom visits following dinner. However, they remained oblivious to the grave ritual that unfolded behind closed doors. Mary was adept at concealing her condition, driven by a powerful fear of anyone discovering her secret.

Despite her awareness of eating disorders in children and adolescents, she deluded herself into believing she had it under control. This belief accompanied her through undergraduate and graduate school, acting as a flawed coping mechanism. She acknowledged her problem in quiet moments of introspection yet consistently reassured herself of her control over it.

At times, she did manage to subdue the disordered eating. Nevertheless, life events carrying emotional weight—joyous occasions like weddings or somber moments like funerals—triggered the resurgence of her damaging eating behaviors.

Life went on. Mary’s friends and acquaintances saw Mary as an intelligent, attractive, healthy, yet thin high achiever, always lending a hand to feed people experiencing poverty and volunteering for any events to assist others less fortunate. And for Mary to let anyone in on what she perceived as dirty and disgusting would add to diminish herself in her own eyes.

Marriage seemed like a fresh start, but her secret endured. She and her husband led a childless yet seemingly content life, with her condition remaining undetected. Neither her close-knit group of friends nor her siblings suspected anything. On the professional front, Mary had a successful stockbroker career. However, her secret persisted beneath the surface, silently shaping her life.

Upon her husband’s untimely death, Mary found herself in a sea of loneliness and depression. It was at this juncture that she acknowledged she needed help. Her husband’s death had not only robbed her of companionship but had also stripped away her last vestige of control.

Regrettably, when Mary turned to the internet seeking help and information, she found a gaping void. Data and research on older adults with eating disorders were scarce. 

Mary’s journey illuminates the often-overlooked narrative of older adults living with eating disorders. It highlights that these disorders are not exclusive to youth, underscoring the ageless affliction that eating disorders genuinely are. It emphasizes the vital need for early detection, appropriate intervention, and supportive treatment environments.

This story is not uncommon. Many individuals, like Mary, silently struggle with eating disorders, camouflaging their distress behind the façade of normalcy. The lack of resources starkly illuminates the underrepresentation and insufficient recognition of eating disorders among the older demographic. It further underscores the necessity of comprehensive research across all age groups in this critical health and wellness field.

Spring Source Psychological Center

Springsource Psychological Center

Navigating the path of recovery from an eating disorder can seem like an uphill battle, especially when tackled alone. Fortunately, several supportive networks and resources are available to those seeking healthier paths away from the debilitating effects of this affliction and beyond merely hoping for symptoms to subside. In the greater Chicago area resides Springsource Psychological Center.

The journey towards recovery can appear daunting when faced alone, but rest assured that you are not by yourself. We are here for you at Springsource Psychological Center, ready to guide you in your recovery journey, including managing your food consumption habits to prevent further complications.

We fully understand the intricate complexities of living with an eating disorder. Here at Springsource Psychological Center, our goal is to extend help to you or your loved ones. With our expertise in this field, we can tailor treatment to each individual, strive to enhance the quality of your life, and help you aim for a healthier and brighter future.  The research shows that individuals who have struggled with eating disorders for decades can recover, so it is never too late for change. 

With increasing awareness, we hope that individuals like “Mary” can step out from the shadows of their silent struggles and walk confidently toward recovery. You don’t have to fight this battle on your own – Contact us today at 224-202–6260Remember, it is never too late or too early to seek help for an eating disorder.