Objective: To study late-onset cases of eating disorders in order to (1) document the occurrence of these cases as truly new onset, even if postmenopausal; (2) to alert clinicians to the category of late-onset eating disorders, especially clinical features and treatment response; (3) to challenge some prevailing assumptions of etiology.
Methods: Selection of cases of eating disorders with first onset after age 40 that met DSM-IV criteria, by review of eating disorders admissions to three university hospital programs.
Results: Eleven patients, approximately 1% of all cases of eating disorders, had first onset of an eating disorder after age 40 and as late as 77, with an average onset of 56 and clinical presentation at 60 years. They met DSM-IV criteria for all subtypes of eating disorders. In general, concurrent medical and comorbid psychiatric symptoms made recognition and treatment more complex.
Discussion: Truly late-onset cases do occur, challenging etiological theories requiring adolescent age of onset, premenopausal endocrine functioning, or adolescent psychodynamic conflicts. Late-occurring cases, after accurate diagnosis, require an appreciation of psychological themes pertinent to this age group, such as bereavement or unresolved body image issues. Age by itself is no barrier to onset of eating disorders, which may occur whenever self-starvation and/or binge-purge behaviors become entrenched as sustaining behaviors for amelioration of psychodynamic conflicts, mood disorders, or interpersonal distress.