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Nearly one in 20 middle-aged women have eating disorders

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Many middle-aged women do not seek help Few middle-aged women seek help for their condition

Approximately 3% of women in their 40s and 50s struggle with eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, research published in BMC Medicine has found.

The researchers surveyed 5658 women in their fourth and fifth decades, finding that 15.3% met the criteria for having an eating disorder, while 3.6% reported the condition in the last 12 months. The researchers also noted that childhood sexual abuse was prospectively associated with all eating disorders, while better maternal care reduced the risk of a daughter developing bulimia. They also highlighted the importance of awareness of eating disorders in middle-age, as many women do not access healthcare, and there is little in the way of specialist treatment.

‘The evidence that lifetime and active eating disorders are common amongst women in mid-life, compounded by the lack of healthcare access and treatment, highlights the likelihood of high disease burden and unmet needs,’ they commented.

Beat, the eating disorder, charity has called for greater research into the area, stating that 15% of their requests for help and support came from women aged over 40.

‘Stereotypically, the world sees people with eating disorders as young,’ said Tom Quinn, Beat’s director of external affairs. ‘When we reinforce stereotypes we also add to the stigma of these serious mental health illnesses and this stigma can prevent individuals coming forward to seek help – a dangerous path to take when the chance of full and fast recovery is vastly improved when treatment is found quickly.’

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Tom Quinn’s comment certainly resonates with my experience. However, talking about eating disorders as if it only applied to young people is not just a barrier to people recognising and admitting their condition and seeking help. In my experience, it also seems to shape how support services and treatments are designed. My wife, who is in her forties, has anorexia and is currently an inpatient. The principle of planning care around the individual needs of the patient is simply not adhered to. This is reflected in many of the group therapy sessions and activities which maybe, and I say “maybe” quite deliberately, appropriate for children and teenagers but certainly do not fit with adults; not just women over the age of 40 but any adult. At best these experiences are condescending and patronising. At worst, they can be damaging and undermine recovery.

Imagine being shackled by the belief that you are worthless and not valued by anyone. You are admitted to hospital with high hopes of being helped to recover by highly trained professionals. Your group therapy begins and you’re asked to participate in activities that treat you like a person who has no life experience. It then happens again and again.

Treating the individual should be at the heart of any care service and part of that approach is taking into account someone’s age and experience. My experience is that the particular system my wife is in is just not designed to meet her needs and so obviously reflects and approach that may make sense with younger people.
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