Asked to describe a person suffering from anorexia, most people would describe a teen girl, but the typical profile is changing. Health experts are trying to dispel the myth that eating disorders are confined to teens and young adults – or even to women. In fact, people suffering from an eating disorder may not even be particularly thin. Stereotypes stand in the way of identifying, intervening, and helping people who suffer from eating disorders.
Amednews.com – the public access to the American Medical Association’s news – recently featured a focus on eating disorders, with the cornerstone article discussing new research showing that eating disorders are an increasing problem in older women. A study of 1,849 women 50 and older published online June 21 in the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that 13.3% of women 50 and older exhibited eating disorder symptoms. In addition, the Renfrew Center, one of the leading treatment centers for eating disorders, reports that over the past decade, there has been a 42% increase in the number of women over the age of 35 who sought treatment.
Study author Cynthia M. Bulik says that the health effects of eating disorders in older women can be severe: “While eating disorders can negatively affect the health of people of all ages, the impact can be particularly severe in older adults, whose bones and immune systems are weakened by age, Bulik said. She often sees severe osteoporosis, cardiovascular problems and gastroesophageal reflux disease in older patients with eating disorders.”
Health experts stress the need to look beyond stereotypes to spot patients with eating disorders. In 2009, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality released data showing that:
“An estimated 23,807 people were hospitalized for eating disorders each year in 1999 and 2000. This amount jumped 18% to 28,155 both in 2005 and in 2006.
Women age 19 to 30 still make up the largest group hospitalized for eating disorders, but researchers found such statistics grew markedly among demographics not usually considered at high risk. Hospitalizations of boys and girls younger than 12 grew 119% from the 1999-2000 period to 2005-06, while admissions among men of any age jumped 37%. Hospitalizations of patients age 45 to 65 increased by 48%.”
A related story, The changing face of anorexia, discusses demographic changes and sheds light on accompanying mental health issues.
Anorexia is often about control and emotion, and at its core are issues greater than food. “The general profile of the anorexic is a perfectionistic tendency,” Dr. Woods says. “They are focused, organized and driven, and that goes into their attitudes about food. Anorexics are rigid, and they are preoccupied with weight, shape and size.”
Some are dealing with old scars, fear of abandonment, distorted body image, feelings of inadequacy and not fitting in. For many, it is emotion management. “Their problems are often with living life, being in relationships,” says Dr. Dennis of Timberline Knolls. Many anorexics also face comments from well-meaning friends, family and physicians — “Why don’t you just eat,” or “Oh, it’s not that bad, you look fine” — that push them further into the disorder.
Anorexics come in many sizes. Some are able to not appear too thin. Others may be 5’4″ and weigh 70 pounds. It is not only difficult to diagnose and treat, it has the highest suicide rate of mental disorders. About 5% of diagnosed patients fully recover, and 40% relapse in the first year. For 75%, it is a lifelong condition.”
How employers can intervene
Employers can raise awareness about eating disorders as part of health and wellness programs. Human Resource staff and managers should be aware of the changing demographics of eating disorders, educated about symptoms and – as they would be with any issues – alert for employee changes in performance or behavior. In observing symptoms or behaviors that may point to eating disorders, managers should not try to be diagnosticians. Rather, in suspecting an issue or a problem that is interfering with work-life issues, managers should become comfortable in suggesting referrals to an Employee Assistance Program or other health or helping resources.
Symptoms of Eating Disorders
Academy for Eating Disorders
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders
National Eating Disorders Association
ESI EAP offers 24-7 access to counselors and a wide variety of support resource for employees and family members who are facing difficult health challenges. We also offer wellness benefits and health risk assessments, including discounts for weight loss programs, exercise and nutrition programs, and stop smoking programs. your EAP can help. If you are employer that doesn’t have an EAP, call us at 800-535-4841.