53 years old, 85lbs and ignored by her doctor: The rise of eating disorders in older women that the medical community is failing to notice


53 years old, 85lbs and ignored by her doctor: The rise of eating disorders in older women that the medical community is failing to notice

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UPDATED:

17:55 GMT, 8 June 2012


Middle-age anorexia: Judith Shaw, a yoga instructor and artist, said she was nearing 40 when diet and exercise became an obsession

Middle-age anorexia: Judith Shaw said she was 39 when diet and exercise became an obsession

People believe eating disorders are limited to adolescence and young adulthood, but a 59-year-old woman knows otherwise.

Judith Shaw, a yoga instructor and artist, said she was nearing 40 when diet and exercise became an obsession.

However doctors failed to recognise or diagnose her disorder for 13 years, a phenomenon, experts say, is unfortunately on the rise.

While the number of older women
checking themselves in to clinics in midlife is steadily growing,
their eating disorders are still going undiagnosed for years prior.

At 39, Ms Shaw became a 'gym rat', but her routine soon led to excessive workouts and years of starving herself.

'I became obsessed with exercise,' she told ABC News.

'I wanted to show
an exterior of strength that was able to mask the hollowness and
vulnerability that I felt on the inside.'

However, she and other experts say, as
women get older they are more adept at concealing the problem, and
doctors will often attribute symptoms to aging rather than to an eating
disorder.

For example, when a thin adolescent stops menstruating, doctors typically ask questions about weight and eating habits. But in Ms Shaw’s case, they assumed it was early menopause.

When she developed anemia and osteoporosis, doctors treated her lack of healthy red blood cells as an isolated incident, failing to guess that the true cause was years of malnourishment.

Tamara Pryor, clinical director of the
Eating Disorder Center of Denver has studied over 200 cases
of midlife eating disorders, and told the New York Times: 'I think there is a probably much higher percentage than we’ve been able to identify.'

'I think out there in the workaday world
there are a large percentage of women who just fly under the radar.
They are sub-clinical and you don’t question them, because in so many
other areas of their life they look so functional.'

Ms Shaw revealed: 'None of my friends,
my ex-husband, no one ever said anything. It was no one’s job to fix me,
but I wish someone had said to me: “I miss you. You’re gone. You’re so
obsessed.”'

Instead she received recognition and praise from her friends as a result of her extreme exercises.

'I starved myself and became obsessed with exercise – but none of my friends, my ex-husband, no one said anything'

Coupled with barely-there food intake, the praise of her body image gave her 'a sense of meaning in a life that felt directionless, alone and isolated.'

Finally, a fellow yoga instructor sounded the alarm after Ms Shaw had twice fallen, breaking an elbow and her pelvis.

'You're going to continue to break bones if you don't feed yourself,' the instructor told her.

At 53, carrying just 85lbs on her 5'3 frame, she finally checked herself in to an eating disorders program.

Cynthia M Bulik, director of the Eating Disorders Program at the University of North Carolina, said:
'One of the things we’re working very hard to do is to make sure this
stays on physicians’ radar screens so they can recognize and distinguish
between menopause-related changes, real health problems and eating
disorders.'

'Often they don’t ask the question
because they have in their mind this stereotypical picture of eating
disorders as a problem of white, middle-class teenagers,' she added.

According
to the National Eating Disorders Association, more than 10 million
American women suffer from anorexia, bulimia or binge eating, and now Ms
Shaw hopes that telling her story will help others see the problem for
themselves.

Healing artworks: Ms Shaw, now 59 and an artist, hopes that telling her story will help others see the problem for themselves

Healing artworks: Ms Shaw, now 59 and an artist, hopes that telling her story through her sculptures will help others see the problem for themselves

In her own treatment, she struggled with writing exercises aimed at helping her identify the origins of her illness, so instead, she began creating art.

Now her sculptures, including a life-size silhouette of
her body, covered with newspaper headlines like 'Help Wanted,'
'Conceal' and 'Find Real Value,' has become a springboard for a more in-depth look into disordered eating habits.

Her series, titled 'Body of Work,' has now been featured in
exhibits at several top medical schools, including Washington University
School of Medicine, Columbia University Medical Center and New York
University School of Medicine.

Many professors also use her work as a
teaching tool, showing medical students in a 'visceral way' what
patients experience when they suffer from an eating disorder.

Ms Shaw said she often notices women who appear to be too thin or obsessed with exercising, and hopes a wider understanding surrounding older women with eating disorders will help others to recognise the disorder.

'In the course of my day, I can spot it. I am 25 to 30 pounds heavier, but I feel lighter. The weight of those emotions is what it was really all about,' she said.