Eating disorders are mental health conditions that cause disturbed patterns in eating, weight, body image and/or body shape. They can affect anyone, but they are most common among teen girls and young women. The rates of eating disorders have more than doubled over the past two decades, according to a recent study from the National Institutes of Health.
Age is a key factor in the development of an eating disorder, but it can also be a symptom of the condition. Some of the most serious eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, often begin during adolescence or early adulthood.
Adolescence is a critical time in a person’s physical and psychological development. It is also a period of significant social pressure. This can lead to increased focus on a person’s body, which can increase the risk of developing an eating disorder.
College students are also at a high risk for eating disorders, which can be related to the pressure of being on campus and the expectations of academic success. A recent study found that 8% to 17% of college students have some form of eating disorder, according to the American College Health Association.
Gay, lesbian and bisexual youth are at a higher risk of developing eating disorders than heterosexual or non-LGBT teens. They are more likely to suffer from binge eating disorder and purging behavior, which can occur at an earlier age than among non-LGBTQ+ youth, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.
Middle-aged women are also at a higher risk for an eating disorder, but they may be more able to overcome it because of their more stable and balanced state of mind. They may not be tempted to engage in unhealthy food behaviors because they are aware of their body and what it should look like, according to an article published in the Journal of School Nursing.
Despite this, eating disorders are more common among teens and younger adults, and those who have a family history of an eating disorder are more likely to develop one. In addition, some people develop an eating disorder because of a mental health issue such as anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Older adults are at a lower risk of an eating disorder, but they may still struggle with a disorder if they are not able to get help. This can be due to a lack of understanding about eating disorders or the fear that they may be too old for treatment.
Eating disorder prevention programs are aimed at younger participants, but older adults can also benefit from intervention efforts. For example, a small study found that middle-aged women who participated in an Internet-delivered version of an eating disorder selective prevention program (eBody Project) had lower BMI reductions than participants who took the same program via traditional group-based formats.
Several studies have investigated the effect of age on baseline levels of eating disorder risk factors and symptoms and the degree to which age moderates the effects of eating disorder prevention interventions. These findings are generally supportive of the efficacy of targeted programs for certain population groups, but they do require careful attention to matching individuals to a particular treatment.