We commonly associate eating disorders with young women and, accordingly, researchers have examined the role of puberty and pregnancy in the development of eating and body image issues. With more recent attention being given to eating disorders in midlife and among older adults, another period of hormonal changes is being researched – menopause. A new study released online last week found that during menopause women are particularly vulnerable to an eating disorder.
Researches from Austria, the Netherlands, New York, and Boston collaborated to investigate rates of eating disorder symptoms among women ages 40-60. Their study is published ahead of print in the International Journal of Eating Disorders. After receiving questionnaires from over 400 Austrian women, the researchers compared reported eating disorder symptoms to women’s menopausal phase, either premenopause, perimenopause, or postmenopause.
Women who were currently experiencing menopause suffered from an eating disorder significantly more often than premenopausal women. Only 2% of premenopausal women reported an eating disorder diagnosis compared to 9% of perimenopausal women. Meanwhile, 5% of postmenopausal women reported an eating disorder (which wasn't a statistically meaningful difference compared to perimenopausal women).
Given all of the recent press on middle aged and older adults suffering from eating disorders, this study suggests that perhaps menopause is an important developmental stage when women’s symptoms of eating disorders increase. Why would that be? The study authors speculate the reasons may be both biological/hormonal and psychological. As with teens going through puberty, women going through menopause experience major changes in their body while dealing with the complex emotions from transitioning to a new stage in life. As a result, menopause may trigger an underlying vulnerability for eating disorders in some women. While the study did not assess past histories of eating disorder diagnosis, it’s also possible that menopause may be related to the relapse of previous eating disorder symptoms.
The study offers yet another source of support to the fact that eating disorders affect people across all demographics. Among older adults, men are also at risk, but the nature of this study precluded their inclusion.
Dr. Gupta is a professor at Barnard College of Columbia University and provides individual therapy at Tribeca Psychology
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