New Study: Eating Disorder Symptoms and Weight and Shape Concerns in Women Over 50

A new study by the UNC Eating Disorders Program investigated the prevalence of eating disorder symptoms and weight and shape concerns in women aged 50+ years. Nearly 1,900 such women completed the Gender and Body Image (GABI) survey online between September 2010 and January 2011, the results of which reveal that disordered eating, as well as weight and shape concerns, occur in a striking percentage of women in midlife and beyond.

Although there is a widely-held belief that eating disorders affect mainly adolescent and young adult women, more than 13% of survey respondents endorsed current core eating disorder symptoms, such as binge eating, purging, or low body-mass index (BMI), while nearly 28% endorsed past symptoms. Approximately 3.5% of respondents reported currently binge eating at least once per week, while nearly 8% reported purging in the absence of binge eating within the last five years.

In addition, women over the age of 50 are not immune to societal pressure to look young, thin, and attractive. More than 71% of survey respondents reported that they are currently trying to lose weight, and nearly two-thirds would feel “moderately” to “extremely” upset if they gained just five pounds. Nearly 80% also revealed that weight or body shape have a “moderate” to “the most important” role in their self-perception, and 35% had spent at least half of the last five years on a diet. Though a prevalent societal belief holds that women become more secure with their appearance as they age, the survey respondents were largely “less satisfied” or “much less satisfied” with their shape (73.3%), weight (71.1%), and overall appearance (66.4%) at age 50+ years than when they were younger.

This study has shed light on the disordered eating and body image concerns facing women in midlife and older adulthood, and the media response has been tremendous, including coverage in USA Today and TIME Magazine. Last week, Dr. Cynthia Bulik, Director of the UNC Eating Disorders Program, spoke about the study on CBS This Morning, and the video is available online. It is our hope that we’ve opened the door to future research on the unique factors influencing disordered eating and weight and shape concerns in this age group, as well as development of targeted interventions for this often neglected demographic.

By: Susan Kleiman