Eating Disorders Rising Among Elderly WomenPosted on Jun 3rd, 2009 | No Comments
Although eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa are usually associated with adolescent girls, the senior population is seeing an increase in cases, especially in elderly women.
According to a recent report from the Remuda Ranch Programs for Eating and Anxiety Disorders, eating disorders in elderly women have increased, and the majority of deaths from anorexia nervosa occur in people over the age of 65.
People with anorexia are up to 10 times more likely to die as a result of their illness, compared with those who don’t have the disorder. The most common complications that lead to death are cardiac arrest and imbalances in electrolytes and fluids. In many cases, health professionals are unaware of the disease’s prevalence among the elderly, sometimes with fatal results.
“Because few health professionals think of screening for eating disorders in the elderly, many elderly eating disorder patients have frequently been missed, with tragic consequences,” said Edward Cumella, Ph.D., executive director at Remuda Ranch. “Anorexia nervosa is a very serious illness in seniors, because many already have compromised health to begin with.”
Anorexia is most common among middle- to upper-class Caucasians, and people who suffer from it believe they are overweight even when they are extremely thin and malnourished. Anorexia is hard to diagnose in the older population, mainly because many elderly people living independently have limited contact with others. Those who live in assisted living situations or nursing homes simply refuse food, giving excuses such as feeling full or too sick to eat.
But researchers warn that these excuses should be challenged to determine whether there is an underlying eating disorder. “Eating disorder origins among the elderly are surprisingly similar to those identified for young women, but with a unique stage-of-life dimension,” Cumella said. “Refusing food is often an attempt to control the one thing the person still feels able to control—their food intake.”
Besides the control issue, refusing food can be a protest aimed at loved ones (perhaps the elderly person is upset about activity restrictions or not being visited enough), or even at attempt at suicide due to despair and depression.
“It’s important to evaluate why elderly people are restricting their food intake,” Cumella said. “As we age, taste buds grow less sensitive and appetite decreases. Certain medications blunt taste and sense of smell, and a variety of illnesses also reduce appetite. So food intake restriction may be due to psychological issues, medical issues or a combination of both.”
Treatment for anorexia involves restoring the patient to a healthy weight, treating the psychological issues that are causing the disorder, and reducing behaviors or thoughts that lead to the eating disorder to prevent relapse. Because of the medical issues that an elderly patient likely has, it’s important that the treatment program provide healthy meals, physical rehabilitation, environmental modifications, and appetite-stimulating medications.