Older people and eating disorders

Sunny Sea Gold has a website and a new book, both about her struggle with binge eating, and how she, and other people with eating disorders, have been able to develop healthy relationships with food. I've browsed around the site a bit and found it fascinating. Although the other side of eating disorders—anorexia and bulimia—have been written about extensively in recent years, I've seen very little about binge eating and didn't have a very good idea of what it was, why it happened, or to whom.

That last question has some particularly surprising answers. Even though Gold's site is called Healthy Girl, it's not just girls who suffer from eating disorders. This letter Gold got from a 72-year-old woman was incredibly moving.

I am 72 years old and just realized that I have had an ED all of my life. It started when I was 12 and went on a diet and lost 20 lbs. I married at 18 and always felt my husband did not love me. I started binge eating when I was alone. I have done it occasionaly thru the years. After some years of lots of stress I started binge eating in the last 4 years and it is getting worse. I really feel sick and miserable afterwards and for a couple of days. It finally dawned on me that I have an ED and don't know what to do about it. I have been a yoyo dieter all of my life. I really don't know how to eat normal. Is there any hope for me??

This woman isn't alone. As Gold points out, the cycle of dieting and binging has almost been enshrined as a normal part of life for older women. It's something that turns up in movies and media as a joke. Think about everything you've ever seen in "Cathy" comics. When an unhealthy behavior gets simultaneously normalized and made fun of that way, it's partly about cruelty, but I think it's also partly a reflection of how many people can relate to the experience. If it wasn't common, there wouldn't be anything to talk about in that context, let alone a joke to be made. And, in fact, an eating disorder program at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, recently told the New York Times that, since 2003, half its patients have been adults.

This is definitely worth paying attention to, especially for doctors. For instance, one woman in the New York Times story said that several doctors had actually encouraged her eating disorder. Because they weren't expecting older patients to have those problems, the same symptoms they'd be worried about in a teenager were interpreted as "maintaining a healthy lifestyle" when presented in an adult.