The Desperate Housewives Result: First Scientific Study Reveals Growing Population Suffer From Eating Disorders in Midlife

The Eating Disorder Center of Denver has announced the results of a two-year study on the growing, but often overlooked population of "middle-aged" women with eating disorders. The study is the first to scientifically establish that there is an increase in the number of women in midlife seeking treatment for eating disorders. It has been a common misconception that the profile of someone with an eating disorder is an upper-class teenage girl. However it is often a woman between the ages of 30 and 65.

"Women with eating disorders who are age 30 and above fly under the radar in terms of getting noticed and treated," said Dr. Tamara Pryor, Clinical Director of the Eating Disorder Center of Denver and the author of this landmark study. "Over the past four years or so, we’ve been seeing more midlife women with eating disorders in our center and according to my research; these women don’t just wake up at age 30 and develop an eating disorder. 94% of the participants had an eating disorder when they were younger and either relapsed or their condition worsened later in life."

"Since such a study has never before been conducted, the results and conclusions drawn from it will have profound effects on how eating disorder treatment is conducted on women in midlife," said Carolyn Ross, MD MPH, medical director of the Eating Disorder Center of Denver. "I am one of the 6 percent for whom the behaviors started later in life. I got a divorce and it started with a diet," said former Eating Disorder Center of Denver patient, Toni Saiber. In a way, I believe I had the temperament traits of someone at risk for an eating disorder [since adolescence], it just hadn’t manifested until I was 32.

"Mid-life eating disorder survivor, Ellen Hart Peña’s illness recurred after the stressor of a divorce. She personally identified with the genetic component of the study’s findings, as her daughter also struggled with the illness. Psychologists refer to personality traits that one has since birth as one’s "temperament." This study is the first to compare the temperament and character profiles of eating disorder patients in adolescence and midlife.

In the study, teen and middle-aged study participants were compared with each other and their profiles were surprisingly similar. Both the midlife eating disorder patients and the young adult eating disorder patients shared genetically-determined traits that resulted in them being highly anxious, worrisome individuals with low self-esteem. "This is about prevention and about intercepting the illness early on. When parents are armed with knowledge about the temperament profile of someone at risk for an eating disorder, they can take steps to prevent it–like never encouraging those children to go on a diet," said Saiber.

"We can change a lot about ourselves, but temperament sticks with you throughout your life. You have to learn what your temperament is in order to make healthy behavior changes that are appropriate for you."

Pryor accounts for the increase in middle-aged eating disorder patients with several explanations:

  • More awareness and better treatment methods have allowed eating disorder patients to survive into middle-age;
  • A baby boom of more middle-aged Americans has likewise yielded a boom of more middle-aged eating disorder sufferers;
  • A society that places such a high premium on a young, very thin physical appearance has caused women to develop eating disorders in adolescence and either relapse or continue their eating disorders well into middle-age

"We call this phenomenon the ‘Desperate Housewives Result’ because of how thin and young the middle-aged women on the popular television show appear. The timely name puts some responsibility on a culture that supports and encourages fountain of youth fixes" said Pryor. "It is just not statistically ‘normal’ for women over 30 to have the same bodies they did at 18 or 20."

Both groups of study participants (regardless of age) shared early dieting as the gateway behavior triggering their illness. Other contributing causes the study identified were: abuse, trauma, grief and loss.

The study found that psychological issues for midlife patients with eating disorders are similar to those in younger women: low self-esteem or self-worth, body loathing and, perhaps, a co-existing psychiatric condition. In fact, women with eating disorders in both age groups were found to have such similar temperaments, coping mechanisms and maturity levels that it does not make sense to separate them from one another in a treatment setting.

"I learned a lot from those young women," Saiber said of her former adolescent therapy group mates. Saiber added that she considers them sisters, sharing the same obstacles in life. "Midlife eating disorder patients may be 46 years old, but this study indicates that they are actually 16 years old, developmentally. Eating disorders actually stunt people’s emotional development," Pryor said. "Both age groups can benefit from one another in treatment."

Fifty more participants have recently been added to this continuing scientific study.