Published on 04/06/06

Eating disorders hit baby boomer generation

By Stephanie Schupska
University of Georgia

As female baby boomers crawl toward menopause and retirement, eating disorders among this age group have started to rise.

Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders, Inc., reports that some speculate the eating disorder increase in this group, born from 1946 until 1964, is because they’ve consistently considered image to be of major importance.

Connie Crawley, a University of Georgia Cooperative Extension expert, agrees.

“Women of all ages are very conscious of their bodies and sometimes have a very negative opinion of their bodies,” she said. “Now that the baby boomers are aging, their body changes are really kind of hitting them harder than probably the previous generation. So now there are women who are becoming much more concerned about the normal changes in body fat distribution that come with age.”

Crawley is a UGA Extension nutrition and health specialist and a registered dietitian. She says many people focus on the physical symptoms of an eating disorder, but “the self-esteem issues, the coping skills, dealing with all the changes as one gets older,” are the real issues.

“Some of these women are under tremendous stress because they’re kind of that sandwich generation where they still have children to deal with and yet they’re dealing with elderly parents,” she said. “They may be having job pressures. They may have marital issues as they get older. So all these things become manifested in their eating habits, which are just symptoms of their struggles. Eating and exercise may be the only things they feel they can control.”

The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia. About 4 percent of college-age women are bulimic and 1 percent anorexic. Unfortunately, ANRED reports, accurate figures for baby boomers aren’t available. Because people with eating disorders are typically secretive, it’s hard to know how many older people are affected.

“There’s also an eating disorder called compulsive overeating,” Crawley said. “And in that case, the woman may eat excessively due to stress or some other reason, but she doesn’t necessarily purge.”

An eating disorder occurs when a person isn’t able to eat enough to maintain a normal body weight and is unable to enjoy food.

“It’s usually a reflection of more psychological problems than physical problems,” Crawley said. “If the psychological problems are dealt with, usually the physical symptoms begin to get better.”

She debunks the myth that eating disorders among older people are relatively new. “It’s probably not been confined to the younger population for quite a while,” she said.

“Being thin is seen as the ultimate good thing to be,” she said. “Unfortunately, they’re taking it to an extreme. It’s good to be physically active. It’s good to eat a good, healthy diet. But it doesn’t mean restricting your calories excessively or exercising three or four hours a day. It’s certainly not that. It’s certainly not using laxatives or purging by vomiting. That’s very, very dangerous.”

Crawley said many of the women now developing eating disorders have had to deal with eating issues all their lives. “But again,” she said, “it’s just a symptom of the internal issues that are more related to their self-esteem.”

She gives the following tips for spotting eating disorders:

  • Significant weight loss over a fairly short time, up to 30 pounds in less than six months.
  • Extended periods spent in the bathroom after eating so they can purge by vomiting or using laxatives.
  • Social isolation because of concern about eating at parties or restaurants.
  • Dry skin and brittle hair.
  • Tooth decay and gum problems caused by stomach acid remaining in the mouth after vomiting.
“Those are just some of the things,” she said. “There are many, many different signs. But the symptoms depend on the type of eating disorder the woman has.”

(Stephanie Schupska is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Stephanie Schupska is the communications coordinator with the University of Georgia Honors College.