Eating Disorders In Adults

Picture a typical person with an eating disorder. Her main focus is chasing after an idealized body of extreme thinness. To achieve this, she restricts herself to very little or no food. She may also over-exercise, binge and purge or abuse laxatives and diet aids to achieve her ideal. Achieving this idealized body has become her sole purpose in life. Now think about her age. Do you picture her as 14? Or 42?

Today, up to 40 percent of patients at Methodist Hospital Eating Disorders Institute are adults, a dramatic shift from less than 10 percent a decade ago. Nearly 95 percent are female. Some have struggled with eating disorders in the past; for others, the struggle is new.

"Although the majority of people with eating disorders have been girls in their teens and women in their early 20s, we have seen an increase in older women in the past few years, ranging from their late 20s to early 50s," says Nan Brown, a licensed psychologist at Eating Disorders Institute.

Contributing factors

Many factors can trigger eating disorders in adults, such as the loss of a loved one, divorce or an empty nest. Those who are newly single and have an intense desire to maintain a youthful body are especially vulnerable.

"Today, more adults feel pressured to keep up with the media's preoccupation with thinness. In the past, people who got married and had children had permission to age gracefully. Some Hollywood actresses create false ideals. And now, men and women of all ages may feel pressured to maintain certain appearances," Brown says.

Diagnosis can be difficult

Adults with eating disorders are sometimes difficult to diagnose. For example, their symptoms may be masked in conversations about diets or not feeling hungry. Also, some symptoms, such as not eating, loss of energy and isolation, can be misdiagnosed as depression. In addition, because adults aren't usually associated with having eating disorders, their symptoms may get overlooked.

The role of the family

Because untreated eating disorders can lead to long-term complications, such as heart problems, low blood pressure, electrolyte imbalances and bone deterioration, it's important for people with these conditions to get help as early as possible.

Families can play an important role in helping a loved one seek treatment. "It helps to be open and willing to talk about it," Brown says. "For example, a family member can try saying, 'This is what I've been noticing and I'm worried about you. Would you be willing to go in and talk to someone?'"

She adds that adults, like teenagers, are more likely to participate in treatment when family members show interest and support their recovery. They also tend to respond better to treatment when family and loved ones are actively involved.

Programs geared for adults

Eating Disorders Institute specializes in treatment for adults with eating disorders that honors their maturity and wisdom. With adults, it's even more important to distinguish these conditions as disorders, rather than weaknesses that could have been controlled.

Patients may participate in a variety of inpatient and outpatient programs. Care teams include a medical doctor, psychiatrist, therapist and dietitian. "We encourage people to come in for an initial assessment. From there, we can create an individualized treatment plan," Brown says.