Health · Menopause

Menopause and Eating Disorders

While the details may be different, all eating disorders are disruptive and debilitating. Women often feel a great deal of shame surrounding their symptoms, eating in secret as they attempt to hide these behaviors from friends and families.  Eating disorders often don’t occur in isolation.  Rather, nearly half of those who struggle with disordered eating also have symptoms of anxiety or depression at some point in their life.  Those with greater stress, worse mental or physical health, or fewer supports in their community were more likely to have both an issue with eating and depression or anxiety.

Unfortunately, in addition to psychological and social repercussions, eating disorders later in life are associated with greater rates of medical problems than in younger women.  Research shows that 40 percent to 80 percent of women develop medical issues related to their disordered eating, the rate differing depending on the behavior.  While some symptoms can be relatively benign, such as headaches and weakness, others are far more serious.  For those with anorexia nervosa or bulimia, medical issues include damage to teeth, osteoporosis, abnormal heart rhythms, or esophageal damage. Those who binge-eat often suffer the health ramifications of excess weight, which may include an increased risk of developing diabetes, joint damage, cardiovascular disease, stroke, or dementia.

The peri-menopausal period appears to be a particularly vulnerable time for some women.  We still don’t understand why midlife seems to make women susceptible to developing eating disorders.  Many women, from an early age, are not happy with their body shape – research shows that 9 out of 10 women ages 45 and older are unhappy with their bodies—but that is nearly the same rate as for younger women, suggesting that body dissatisfaction alone is not what’s driving this resurgence of disordered eating.

Menopause, like adolescence, is a period associated with significant hormonal change.  For example, it was once thought that estrogen simply declined during the peri-menopause.  We now know that estrogen and other ovarian hormones fluctuate significantly during this period and estrogen can reach levels higher than those seen in adolescence.  It has been suggested by some investigators that it is these hormonal fluctuations that predispose some to developing an eating disorder.  However, more research is needed to understand this interplay.

What to do with this information?  First, recognize that eating disorders can occur at any age, not just in the teenage years. If you are concerned that you or someone you care about has developed an eating disorder, please seek help. This could be from your primary care doctor, a therapist, a nutritionist, or a psychiatrist. Because not everyone is skilled in treating individuals with eating disorders, for best results it is best to look for someone with expertise. These illnesses are treatable, and help is available.

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Baker JH, Runfola CD. Eating disorders in midlife women: A perimenopausal eating disorder? 2016 Mar; 85: 112 – 116.

Elran-Barak R, Fitzsimmons-Craft EE, Benyamini Y, Crow SJ, Peterson CB, Hill LL, Crosby RD, Mitchell JE, Le Grange D. Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge Eating Disorder in Midlife and Beyond. J Nerv Ment Dis. 2015 Aug;203(8):583-90.

Meng X, D’Arcy C. Comorbidity between lifetime eating problems and mood and anxiety disorders: results from the Canadian Community Health Survey of Mental Health and Well-being. Eur Eat Disord Rev. 2015 Mar;23(2):156-62.

Runfola CD, Von Holle A, Trace SE, Brownley KA, Hofmeier SM, Gagne DA, Bulik CM. Body dissatisfaction in women across the lifespan: results of the UNC-SELF and Gender and Body Image (GABI) studies. Eur Eat Disord Rev. 2013 Jan;21(1):52-9

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  • Sheri Keneally September 2, 2019 at 11:39 pm

    This web site definitely has all the information and facts I wanted concerning this subject and didn’t know who to ask.

  • Leslie in Oregon July 10, 2017 at 9:30 pm

    Informative…and horrifying ((9 out of 10 women 45 and older, as well as 9 out of 10 younger women, are not happy with their bodies!).