CLEVELAND - The National Institute of Mental Health estimates eight million people in the U.S. struggle with an eating disorder and there is growing evidence that disorders like anorexia are more common in older women than once thought.
Though national statistics on middle-aged patients aren’t routinely kept, mental health professionals suspect there is an increase in the number of older patients seeking treatment for eating disorders.
Mark Warren, a psychiatrist at the Cleveland Center for Eating Disorders , said he has definitely noticed an increase in his practice.
He said the pressure to be thin at any age is “unbelievably damaging.” What adds to the pressure is the large number of women on television who are underweight.
"Almost no women on TV are overweight and if they are overweight, usually they're in a comic relief role, there's an overt message from programming that if you're overweight there's something wrong with you," he said.
Though it may appear a disorder is just developing later in life, Dr. Warren said most eating disorders start in the teen years.
“So if you’re seeing a woman in her 30s with an eating disorder, the odds are very high that they’ve been sick for quite some time,” he said.
The face of disordered eating
Stefanie Sizemore, 30, didn’t start to confront her issues with food until her mid-20s. She said it was relatively easy to hide her swings from bulimia to anorexia.
What made it especially hard to change in the business world was that she felt rewarded in her sales career when she was thin.
She said she made more money, felt more confident and got more attention and compliments.
"It's like an eating disorder is your own prison and some days, most days, it feels like you can't ever get out," she said.
Sizemore has had a lot of different therapy, but it was her in-patient experience two years ago which helped ease her into what feels like long-term recovery.
The Medina woman now devotes a great deal of her time to her church and talking to adolescents about her struggle with disordered eating, encouraging them to come forward for help sooner rather than later.
“I like to keep it real,” she said.
Treating the older patient
A teenager can see dramatic results from treatment in a year, but for an adult it can take more like five to seven years to help patients recover.
But the right treatment can work, and Warren said at his clinic treatment generally includes making sure the patient is out of physical danger first, then focusing on therapy and creating a support network.
For anyone struggling with an eating disorder, or wanting to know more about helping someone to recover, Warren recommends reading "Gaining: The Truth About Life After Eating Disorders" .
The book is written by Aimee Liu , who interviewed leading researchers and more than 40 other women and men with histories of eating disorders. Warren refers to Liu as one of the leading authorities on the issue.
Signs of an eating disorder
Liu and Warren agree that if someone wants to hide an eating disorder, he or she can usually do it, which can make it difficult for loved ones to encourage treatment.
Many people who are suffering from an eating disorder are of average weight or slightly above average. The shockingly thin woman who is anorexic is not the only representation of a person who is struggling with a disorder.
Liu said 60 to 70 percent of eating disorders occur in people who are genetically suseptible and the disorder is often brought on by a stress trigger and/or assault on one's identity like a divorce or a death.
Warren said if you suspect a problem, there usually is one.
He suggests looking for changes in a person's weight, a change in eating behavior and conversations dominated by food or weight.
Warren maintains a blog on his center's website for the latest information and support.
Copyright 2010 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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