By: Meghan Taylor

Eating disorders are extremely common and research shows that they affect around 1.6 million people in the UK. Eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia are often associated with young people. However, growing numbers of elderly people are being diagnosed with these conditions and it is not uncommon to develop an eating disorder in later life. An eating disorder can cause serious long-term health issues, especially if it is left untreated. It is therefore essential that relatives and carers know how to spot an eating disorder in elderly people. Here is everything you need to know about eating disorders in the elderly:

What is an eating disorder?

According to the NHS website: “An eating disorder changes a person’s attitude towards food and their body in a way that influences their behaviour and eating habits.” When someone has an eating disorder, they consistently eat too little or too much. They are also likely to obsess over their weight and body image. There is a wide range of eating disorders, but the three most common conditions are anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating. A recent study found that 81% of people over the age of 50 with an eating disorder were diagnosed with anorexia. Elderly people with an eating disorder can be split into three categories:

  1. An elderly person who has had an eating disorder for many years and never received treatment.
  2. An elderly person who has previously been treated for an eating disorder but has relapsed.
  3. An elderly person who has developed a new eating disorder.

What are the signs of eating disorders in elderly people?

As mentioned, eating disorders are often associated with young people, which means that they often go unnoticed in the elderly. Here are some warning signs that an elderly person may be suffering from an eating disorder:

  • Weight fluctuations – If an elderly person loses or gains a significant amount of weight in a short space of time.
  • Changes in behaviour – If an elderly person goes to the bathroom straight after eating or prefers to eat in private, for example.
  • Medical issues – If an elderly person experiences things like hair loss, dental issues, or gastrointestinal problems.

Why do eating disorders develop in elderly people?

Eating disorders can develop in elderly people for various reasons. Eating disorders are complex and an elderly person may have been battling with an eating disorder for many years. A survey by Beat found that a person with an eating disorder can recover n five to eight years providing they receive appropriate treatment, but the illness can persist throughout life. In some cases, an elderly person may relapse and start experiencing symptoms of an eating disorder that was previously treated. New eating disorders can develop in elderly people due to a loss of desire to eat or a lack of interest in food. Medical issues can also make it more difficult for elderly people to prepare meals and eat a balanced diet. For instance, Helping Hands explain how “swallowing difficulties can make mealtimes less enjoyable and have a negative impact on quality of life.”

How are eating disorders treated in elderly people?

If you suspect that an elderly loved one has an eating disorder, then you must act quickly and help them overcome their eating issues. Remember to approach the topic sensitively and try to be as understanding and open. The good news is, there are plenty of ways to support an elderly loved one with an eating disorder. Many people start the process of recovering from an eating disorder by speaking with their GP. Your family GP will assess your elderly loved one and refer them for treatment if necessary. You can also get in touch with a specialist eating disorder facility to arrange treatment. These centres offer therapies such as counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). If you are a carer, then you can support an elderly person by letting them know that you are there for them and encouraging them to research their condition or join support groups online.

Summary

Eating disorders do not discriminate and can affect people of all ages. Elderly people can be more prone to eating disorders for several reasons including low appetite and health issues that make it difficult to eat. If an eating disorder is left untreated, then it can cause serious health complications, so you must act quickly if you notice the warning signs. If you believe that an elderly loved one is suffering from an eating disorder, then discuss your concerns and seek specialist advice and treatment. There are plenty of ways to support an elderly loved one with an eating disorder and help them on their road to recovery.

 

Meghan is a freelance writer who has recently been studying the experiences of the elderly especially during lockdown and is also shining a light on some of the issues faced by the elderly such as elderly people struggling with an eating disorder.

Here at S.E.E.D we aim to offer a network of support for those struggling with an eating disorder. We have several support groups running throughout the week. To view our schedule of support services, click here. Remember you’re not alone. 💙