Alison Smela poses for a photograph at her home Sunday, Jan. 1, 2012, in Glen Ellyn. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times
Updated: February 4, 2012 11:35AM
Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia are typically thought to be diseases of young women and men. But researchers are finding that the personal demons that drive a young person to an eating disorder may linger into adulthood.
More and more middle-aged and older people are coming forward to receive treatment for eating problems that began in their youth and have been reignited by adult stress or personal crises.
That was the case with Alison Smela, 49, of Glen Ellyn. When she was 12, she was given a weight plan to follow over the summer because she was considered overweight. Smela said she went back to school thinner, and people noticed approvingly.
“I got all kinds of attention, and I liked that,” she said. “I equated losing weight with gaining attention.”
Controlling her eating also helped Smela feel better when things seemed too much to handle. “When life got tough, I always knew I could control the scale,” she said.
But as she grew more successful and climbed the corporate ladder, her anorexia spiraled out of control. So did her problem with heavy drinking.
“The more pressure I was under, the more titles I had, I wasn’t dealing with the pressures of the job and of life in a healthy manner,” she said.
When Smela turned 40, she said, she decided to receive treatment for her alcoholism. She’s now nearly a decade sober. But her eating disorder remained untreated, even though she knew she had a problem.
“I presumed alcoholism was more acceptable to society at my age,” she said. “Having an eating disorder wasn’t.”
She turned to the Renfrew Center, which operates a number of eating disorder clinics in the United States.
The center has seen a 42 percent increase in middle-aged female clients since 2001.
Unhealthy eating patterns adopted in adolescence or teen years often continue into adulthood, according to a University of Minnesota study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. The study, which followed 2,287 kids as they grew into young adults, found that more than half of the girls had unhealthy eating patterns that continued into their mid- to late 20s.
Eating disorders can be very devastating to the bodies at middle age, when osteoporosis, chemical imbalances and other health issues crop up more easily and have an even more lasting impact on health, experts say. “Older bodies do not have the plasticity that younger bodies do,” he explained. “They can’t tolerate the stresses and risks.”
The specific problems faced by middle-aged people with eating disorders prompted the Renfrew Center to create a separate treatment program specifically tailored to their needs, said Holly Grishkat, a senior director of clinical operations.
What drives someone in midlife to seek help for an eating disorder varies. For Smela, who was 46 at the time she first went to the Renfrew Center, it was her reflection, she said.
“The summer before I went for treatment, I started catching glimpses of myself in a mirror or reflection, and I was scared,” she said. “I saw my body as a whole, and it scared me.”
For Smela, a clear message for anyone suffering in secret is the fact that there’s hope.
“As a ‘seasoned’ woman living an addiction-filled life, I thought there was no way out,” she said. “I now know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, there is.”
It is important for mothers to get help, said Dr. Ed Tyson, an eating disorders specialist in Austin, Texas.
“Having an eating disorder makes their children have a 12- to 15-fold greater risk of having an eating disorder,” he said. “They need to do the work and get better, or their children could be at risk.”
Gannett News Service