Eating disorders are more common than expected among middle-aged women, suggests a new UK study.
The study of about 5,650 women in their 40s and 50s found more than 3% had an active eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia – problems more often associated with adolescence or early adulthood.
“Our study shows that eating disorders are not confined to earlier decades of life”
Just over 15% of women in the study, which was published in the journal BMC Medicine, reported having an eating disorder at some point in their life, while 3.6% had one in the past year.
Meanwhile, just over 27% of those who had eating disorders said they had sought help or received treatment.
“Our study shows that eating disorders are not confined to earlier decades of life and that both chronic and new onset disorders are apparent in mid-life,” said lead author Dr Nadia Micali, from University College London.
“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,” she said.
“It may be there are some barriers women perceive in healthcare access or a lack of awareness among healthcare professionals,” she added.
More than 5,650 women who originally took part in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children were involved in the new research, which involved completing a survey on eating disorders.
About 1,000 participants – half who had experienced an eating disorder and half who had not – were then interviewed by researchers.
The authors said the study covered the last 40 years and, therefore, might reflect past rather than current lack of clinical awareness of eating disorders in the UK.
However, they said it was still “surprising” that very few women had sought or got treatment.
Eating disorders unexpectedly common in middle-aged
“Poor healthcare access was evident in this sample of women,” they stated in the study paper.
“This has implications for service provision, which at present is not specifically geared towards women in mid-life, and in identification of women who might be misdiagnosed given the lack of awareness amongst healthcare professionals of eating disorder presentations,” they added.
The researchers also looked at factors that may contribute to the onset of an eating disorder such as happiness or unhappiness in childhood, sexual abuse, parents divorcing or separating and other life events, and women’s relationship with their parents.
They found these risk factors were linked to different eating disorders. For example, women who reported being unhappy in childhood were found to be at greater risk of developing anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating or purging disorders.