Eating disorders have long been seen as only affecting the young. But, the drive to achieve perfection or physical beauty leads many to take dangerous measures.

Whether it’s a cycle of binging and purging or literally starving oneself, eating disorders can be difficult to catch among loved ones. They become especially tough to spot in seniors, a group often believed to have aged out of the conditions. This makes these conditions extra dangerous, as they can go unidentified and untreated.

Intro to Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are conditions that cause those they plague to have unhealthy relationships with food. We tend to think of them as either anorexia or bulimia, but binge eating also falls into this category.

Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder and is categorized by extremely limited eating. Despite the extreme weight loss, the sufferer may continue to see themselves as overweight or fear weight gain.

Bulimia can be much harder to identify. Unlike anorexia, people with bulimia will experience episodes of binge eating. Binge eating is described as eating abnormal amounts of food without control. Sometimes, individuals may have rituals or even hoard food and eat in secret.

Where binge eating disorder and bulimia differ is what comes next. After a binge, someone with bulimia purges, meaning they get rid of extra calories. They may do this by making themselves throw up, working out, or taking laxatives.

Signs to Look Out For

Since eating disorders tend to be found in youth, their warning signs can often be missed in the elderly, especially because the signs could be mistaken for benign issues. Early warning signs of eating disorders include:

  • Increased sensitivity to cold
  • Hair loss
  • Dental issues
  • Gastrointestinal concerns
  • Secretive eating habits
  • Sudden changes in behavior after eating

As the illness progresses, the symptoms will grow clearer. Those who suffer from eating disorders will show an unhealthy concentration on food and weight. For anorexia, you’ll see a startling weight loss in the individual. They’ll also experience constipation and have thinning hair, dry skin, and brittle nails. If a person with anorexia eats around you, you may notice them take incomplete portions or a general lack of eating.

Those with bulimia will often overuse laxatives. You may also see signs of excessive or forced vomiting, such as tooth decay, enamel erosion, and swollen salivary glands. In some cases, there can be teeth-marks or calluses on the knuckles from self-induced vomiting.

What If You Know Someone with an Eating Disorder?

If you believe that your loved one has an eating disorder, get them help. First, try to have a frank and open conversation with them. Don’t make them feel cornered. Instead, be supportive, well-researched, and understanding. If they agree that they have a problem, seek professional help. Eating disorders are tough to beat, but nobody has to go it alone.

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Unfortunately, eating disorders aren’t like drug or alcohol addictions, where someone can learn to abstain to fix an unhealthy relationship. Everyone’s got to eat. So, the sufferer has be able to establish a healthy attitude toward eating.

To help ensure your loved ones stay healthy, it’s important for you to recognize signs of eating disorders, which can be deceptive in older adults. If someone you know is showing the signs of an eating disorder, don’t wait. Get them help today.

Further Reading

National Center for Biotechnology Information — Anorexia of Aging: Risk Factors, Consequences, and Potential Treatments
National Center for Biotechnology Information — Eating Disorders in Late-life