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21-06-2012 | Article

Women still fret over body image as they get older


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MedWire News: Women in their later decades are not immune to pressure to be thin, suggest results of a new survey.

"We know very little about how women aged 50 and above feel about their bodies," says investigator Cynthia Bulik (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), in a press statement. "An unfortunate assumption is that they 'grow out of' body dissatisfaction and eating disorders, but no one has really bothered to ask. Since most research focuses on younger women, our goal was to capture the concerns of women in this age range to inform future research and service planning."

Bulik and colleagues surveyed 1849 women (mean age 59.1 years) throughout the USA who were taking part in a study of gender and body image. They found that 71.2% were currently trying to lose weight, and that 35.6% reported being on a diet for at least half the time in the previous 5 years.

In addition, 3.5% admitted to current binge eating, although only 0.1% (two respondents) had a low body-mass index (BMI), defined as below 18.5 kg/m2 at their lowest adult weight, the authors report in a study published online in The International Journal of Eating Disorders.

In the previous 5 years, 7.8% of women said they had engaged in purging in the absence of binge eating.

The prevalence of disordered eating behaviors appears to have declined over time. Asked about their eating behaviors in the past, 19.5% said they had had a low BMI, 4.6% admitted to binge eating, and 1.4% acknowledged purging.

Some women also reported going to extremes to lose weight or reshape their bodies, including taking diet pills (7.5%), exercising excessively (7%), using diuretics (2.5%), taking laxatives (2%) or vomiting (1%).

"A key question remains: are overweight and obese women engaging in maladaptive weight control behaviors due to their awareness of the negative impact of excess weight on their health? If the answer is yes, then greater public health attention must be drawn toward effective strategies to achieve health rather than desperate and ultimately ineffective attempts at weight loss (eg, diuretics and diet pills) - which create more medical problems than they solve," the authors write.

They note that as more than two-thirds of women aged 60 years and over in the USA are overweight or obese, "it is imperative that future research concentrates on eating disorder symptoms, behaviors, and weight and shape concerns and their potential influence on the health of overweight and obese women in midlife to older adulthood."

"The bottom line is that eating disorders and weight and shape concerns don't discriminate on the basis of age," Bulik said. "Healthcare providers should remain alert for eating disorder symptoms and weight and shape concerns that may adversely influence women's physical and psychological wellbeing as they mature."

By Neil Osterweil