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Eating disorders in older adults

Golden Living

Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating and similar disorders are often assumed to be issues for much younger people, but they can occur at any age. In later life, addressing the issue can be far more complex, with less margin for error.

The Academy for Eating Disorders (www.aedweb.org) notes nine truths about eating disorders:

• Many people with eating disorders may be extremely ill despite outwardly healthy appearances.

• Families are not to blame and can be patients’ and providers’ best allies in treatment.

• An eating disorder diagnosis is a health crisis that disrupts personal and family functioning.

• Eating disorders are not choices, but serious biologically-influenced illnesses.

• Eating disorders affect people of all genders, ages, races, ethnicities, body shapes and weights, sexual orientations and socioeconomic statuses.

• Eating disorders carry an increased risk for both suicide and medical complications.

• Genes and environment play important roles in the development of eating disorders.

• Genes alone do not predict who will develop eating disorders, or when.

• Full recovery from an eating disorder is possible. Early detection and intervention are important.

The National Council on Aging (www.ncoa.org) sees three general patterns in later-life eating disorders. Most common is a re-appearance of an eating disorder in a person who may have recovered from such a disorder earlier in life. The re-appearance can be triggered by a stressor like the loss of a family member, a transition like a child leaving home, or reaching the age when an older family member died — especially if that family member died at a younger age than is typical. Another pattern involves people who have had long-standing eating disorders, who have struggled through life with considerable suffering. According to NCOA, eating disorders have the highest mortality rates of all mental illnesses outside of overdose deaths from opiates. A third pattern involves eating disorders that appear for the first time later in life.

Your health care providers should be aware of all three patterns, and the ways that later-life eating disorders can affect you or someone for whom you care. Eating disorders can trigger musculoskeletal issues like osteoporosis; gastrointestinal, cardiovascular and/or reproductive issues; and even dental issues. All these systems become more vulnerable with age.

The nutrition services division at the Office for the Aging (www.dutchessny.gov/ofanutrition)  offers nutrition education and counseling, along with many other services to meet the nutrition needs of Dutchess County adults aged 60 and older. OFA operates eight Friendship Centers for older adults interested in social activities and fellowship as well as a nutritious lunch. The centers operate in Beacon, East Fishkill, Millerton, Pawling, Pleasant Valley (Tri-Town), the City of Poughkeepsie, Red Hook and South Amenia/Wassaic. Contact OFA to learn more.

Next week we’ll discuss a nutrition-related condition that’s increasingly common among older adults: diabetes.


Golden Living is prepared by Dutchess County OFA Director Todd N. Tancredi, who can be reached at 845-486-2555, ofa@dutchessny.gov or via the OFA website at www.dutchessny.gov/aging.

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