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Understanding the Signs of an Eating Disorder in Older Adults

An older woman stands over a plate of food not eating, which can be a sign of an eating disorder in older adults.
We don’t often think about eating disorders in older adults, but they can occur. Use these tips to help identify them in your loved ones.

Changes in eating habits and weight are not unusual as we grow older. Medication side effects, dental problems, less physical activity due to mobility issues, as well as other factors need to be explored and either addressed or ruled out. But there’s another possible culprit which could surprise you: eating disorders in older adults.

How Can I Tell If It’s an Eating Disorder in Older Adults?

First, remove any preconceived notions that are common in our society about eating disorders and their predominant impact on the young. Late-onset eating disorders are increasingly and alarmingly common. Anorexia nervosa is by far the most prevalent, impacting 81% of older adults with eating disorders according to a recently available study. Look for the following red flags:

  • Hair loss

  • Dental and/or stomach problems

  • Utilizing the bathroom right after a meal (which may indicate purging)

  • Use of laxatives

  • Expressing adverse thoughts about their body image

  • Refusal to eat meals or wanting to be alone at mealtime

Noticing an eating disorder in older adults is particularly concerning according to Cynthia Bulik, professor of eating disorders at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She explains, “One of the main concerns is that eating disorders take a tremendous toll on just about every bodily system. In old age, these body systems are less resilient to begin with…so eating disorders can erode them more quickly and more seriously.”

The Differences Between Anorexia and Bulimia

Though less common than anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa brings added dangers for seniors, including heart problems. It’s important to grasp the differences between these two very serious conditions. In a nutshell, someone with anorexia strives to either lose or avoid gaining weight, while bulimia includes the additional component of binge eating. Other distinctions include:

  • Bulimia displays through episodes of overeating and then either vomiting or using enemas or taking laxatives to eliminate the binged food.

  • Anorexia involves consuming very little food, continuously monitoring weight, wearing baggy clothes, over exercising to the point of exhaustion or fainting.

In both types of eating disorders, the person affected will be focused on the shape and weight of their body as well as with food. They frequently may not notice that there is an issue, making it all the more important for friends, family members, and caregivers to be vigilant in detecting signs and symptoms of an eating disorder.

If you suspect an eating disorder in someone you love, contact the doctor right away for an evaluation and treatment options.

The Care Company is always on hand to help as well. We can prepare meals that are both appetizing and nutritious, and offer companionship during mealtime to make it more enjoyable. Our caregivers also watch out for and immediately report any troubling symptoms. Email or give us a call at 416-422-2273 for more information on our home care services in North York, Scarborough, Markham, and the nearby areas.

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