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The Dangers of Eating Disorders in Seniors and How to Help

An older woman leans on her kitchen counter with an untouched plate of fruit before her

Changes in weight and eating habits are not unusual as people grow older. Medication side effects, dental problems, less physical activity as a result of mobility issues, and other factors need to be explored and either addressed or ruled out. But there’s another possible cause that could surprise you: eating disorders in seniors.

How Do I Determine Whether It’s an Eating Disorder?

First, discard any preconceived notions that are common in our society about eating disorders and their predominant impact on the young. Late-onset eating disorders are increasingly, and alarmingly, common. Anorexia nervosa is by far the most prevalent, affecting 81% of older adults with eating disorders according to a recently available study. Look for the following red flags:

  • Use of laxatives
  • Refusal to eat meals, or wanting to be alone at mealtime
  • Expressing negative thoughts about their body image
  • Stomach and/or dental problems
  • Hair loss
  • Using the bathroom immediately after a meal (which may indicate purging)

Eating disorders in seniors are especially dangerous, according to Cynthia Bulik, professor of eating disorders at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She shares, “One of the main concerns is that eating disorders take a tremendous toll on just about every bodily system. In old age, these body systems are less resilient to begin with…so eating disorders can erode them more quickly and more seriously.”

The Distinct Differences Between Anorexia and Bulimia

Though less common than anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa brings further dangers for seniors, including heart problems. It’s important to understand the differences between these two very serious conditions. In a nutshell, someone with anorexia seeks to either lose or avoid gaining weight, while bulimia includes the additional element of binge eating. Other distinctions include:

  • Bulimia displays through episodes of overeating and then either vomiting or using enemas or taking laxatives to eliminate the binged food.
  • Anorexia involves consuming very little food, continuously monitoring weight, wearing baggy clothes, over exercising to the point of exhaustion or fainting.

In both types of eating disorders, the person affected will be focused on the weight and shape of their body along with food. They often will not recognize that there is an issue, making it all the more important for family members and caregivers to be vigilant in detecting the signs of an eating disorder.

If you suspect an eating disorder in someone you love, contact the doctor right away for an evaluation and treatment options.

Superior Senior Home Care is always readily available to help as well. We can prepare meals that are both nutritious and appetizing, and offer companionship during mealtime to make it more enjoyable. Our caregivers also look for and immediately report any troubling symptoms. Contact us at 805-737-4357 to learn more about our in-home care services in Santa Maria, Solvang, Pismo Beach, and the surrounding areas.

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