A recent study by the University College of London has unveiled a part of the eating disorder victims no one saw coming. In the UK, 15% of women aged between 40 and 50 years old have suffered from an eating disorder at some point in their life and 3% of them within the past year.
According to the NHS website, eating disorders are “characterised by an abnormal attitude towards food that causes someone to change their eating habits and behaviour. A person with an eating disorder may focus excessively on their weight and shape, leading them to make unhealthy choices about food with damaging results to their health.”
In this definition, nothing mentions age, yet it is common belief eating disorder is spread mostly amongst young girls, teenagers under the influence of skinny models, pressured by society, mentally fragile…
This new study, conducted by Dr. Micali from the University College of London, is the very first of its kind. In fact, this is the first study taking into account middle aged women as potential victims of eating disorders.
5,300 women in the UK between their 40s and 50s were questioned. According to the study, 15% of them have been battling with an eating disorder at some point in their life, 3% were victims of it in the past year and 70% were afraid to seek help. In contrast, 15% of women aged between 15 and 30 years old have been diagnosed with a current eating disorder.
Most of the women who took part in this study confessed afterwards that this study was their first time talking about their disease. Beat Charity has confirmed it and added that those figures have been alarmingly rising for the last 8 years.
More than showing this chronic disorder is far from being only confined in the young generation, there is a serious problem with the way society considers eating disorders and their victims.
“Many of the women who took part in this study told us this was the first time they had ever spoken about their eating difficulties, so we need to understand why many women did not seek help. It may be that there are some barriers women perceive in healthcare access or a lack of awareness among healthcare professionals.” says Dr. Micali.
“GPs should be on the lookout and women should be told about this so that they can choose to seek help and know that there are treatments that can help them.” states Pr. C. Fairburn from the Psychiatry Dpt at Oxford University.
Beat Charity, main help organisation for eating disorder victims, has also expressed its concern about those rising figures and the urgent need to challenge the way society currently thinks of eating disorder.
“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. Last year, 15% of calls to our helpline were about someone over the age of 40 and this research from Dr Micali only goes to further support the importance of providing an appropriate treatment pathway for individuals with eating disorders at all ages.”
The reasons behind this fear of seeking help and talking about it are mostly due to a lack of awareness. Eating disorders are still a taboo topic. The study shows that women are scared of their surroundings’ reactions, of not being understood. The healthcare access is also lacking as GPs are not always trained to identify eating disorder symptoms on middle aged women.
The factors ensuing eating disorders are numerous. Some are well known, such as the influence skinny models have had on younger girls for the past decades, but also bullying and society pressure on body perfection.
The researchers of the study tried to find out the factors that may trigger eating disorder. According to them, life events play a big role in eating disorder such as a divorce, a sexual abuse, a poor work and personal life balance, financial burdens… They also demonstrated that a good mother-daughter relationship during childhood can decrease by 4 to 10% the risk of developing an eating disorder in the future. Some women also suffer from an eating disorder because of them craving of feeling in control and keep their body and mental under control.
Jane Smith, CEO of the Anorexia and Bulimia Care charity, adds: “There’s increasing pressure on older women to be perfect. We’re not allowed to age, we must look like Helen Mirren. Then there are the stresses such as divorce and job loss.”
Psychologist Emma Kenny insists “Women find it shameful. What’s shocking is the pressure some clients feel to look perfect when they’re falling apart inside. An eating disorder partly distracts you from what’s happening in your life, but part of that is because society tells you you’re not good enough if you’re not thin.”
The British newspaper The Mirror has gathered testimonies from women across the UK who accepted to talk about their battle against eating disorders. Some still haven’t told their families and closed ones about it and thus decided to speak under a fake name.
Nurse in a hospital in East Yorkshire, Louise, 43, tells her story. Back in her early years, she had been verbally attacked about her weight but only fell into the infernal spiral that is eating disorder at 40 after a tough break-up and her self esteem hitting rock bottom. On the verge of being hospitalized, she was eating a bowl of cereals per day.
“Weight loss becomes a goal you can strive for. I began to spiral downwards. But when anyone at work asked me if I’d lost weight I felt really good because it meant they had noticed I was hurting.” she explains.
Three years later, Louise has accepted her disease and sought help to the eating disorder support service SEED, founded by Marg Oaten.
Another similar story told by The Mirror is Susan’s, 48, from North Yorkshire. She has fought bulimia for eight years, hiding her disorder from her surroundings. Her struggle began after a bereavement and a miscarriage, her weight dropping from 12st to 7st.
In order to keep her eating disorder a secret from her husband, Susan explains that she would eat dinner with him and then force herself into vomiting. “My husband doesn’t understand so I’d starve all day and then eat with him in the evening, before getting rid of it,” she admits.” she says.
Both of those women, and like many others, observed a long time before talking about their eating disorder to any one and seek help to a group support or a health centre.
The Mirror reports a woman that was told by her GP “Aren’t you a little old for an eating disorder?”.
However, some women prefer to speak out. Zoe McFarlane, for instance, 48, is still suffering but has decided to publicly convey her story. Divorced and mother of two, Zoe’s troubled started after a weight loss due to medication. Although she hasn’t fell under the health weight range (between 18 and 25), Zoe still suffers from an eating condition but her situation hasn’t been taken seriously by many. She was told by her GP that this was her own fault.
Zoe admits that her two sons, in their late teen years, were image conscious and this participated in exacerbating the lowering of her own self esteem.
Before being interviewed by The Mirror, Zoe admits having eaten only two eggs during the whole day. “I stopped eating. Now I’ve been hospitalised twice. I spent three days on a drip (…). I’m not desperately underweight, I landed up in hospital because my heart was playing silly tricks because I’d been fasting again. I told them I was anorexic and my nurse said, ‘You don’t look anorexic’.”
Zoe’s story tells yet another side of eating disorder. Being anorexic or bulimic does not necessarily mean victims look like skeletons and scrawny walking bodies. In fact, many victims do not fall under the healthy weight range since eating disorder is first and foremost a psychological disorder that can then appear through the body.
This is the kind of situation Amanda Prowse talks about in her book, The Food Of Love, published last December by Lake Union Publishing. The author recently went public with her former eating disorder, “the secret epidemic of eating disorders blighting the middled-aged” she writes for The Daily Mail.
In her novel, Prowse wants readers to picture and understand what the victims are going through and thus open society’s eyes on the hard truth. The author hammers that eating disorder is not a passing fancy and that every women, whatever the age is or social status can be a victim of eating disorder.
Prowse’s story isn’t new and might sound very familiar to many as the hard reality she went through is nothing but cold ordinary. In her article for The Daily Mail, the author concludes “And surely the more women who start facing their food demons with a bit more honesty, the better chance we have of beating them.”.
Today, there are 180,000 women of any age that are currently battling with an eating disorder and probably many more who would prefer to stay quiet by fear of their surroundings’ reactions. If you fear that you or some one you know is in denial or have an unhealthy relationship with food, there are ways to seek help. Visit the BEAT website or check with a health center.