Yesterday, the results of a new study from the Department of Psychiatry at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York and University College London shone a much-needed light on the widespread impact of eating disorders. These illnesses with their accompanying misconceptions are frequently stereotyped as affecting only young women and teenage girls. Yet, according to this research, published in open access journal BMC Medicine, eating disorders affect 3% of women in their 40s and 50s.
This is the first time the prevalence of eating disorders in women in this age group has been researched on a large scale, and the outcome of the study surprised researchers, who expected the percentage of sufferers to be lower. But the results of the study reflect what we already know and what we work to raise awareness of at Beat, the UK's eating disorder charity. 15% of the calls to our helpline last year were about someone over the age of 40, and common but rarely talked about eating disorders such as binge eating disorder mainly affect older people, with most sufferers developing the illness in their 30s and beyond.
In a speech to the Charity Commission a week ago, Theresa May spoke of the need for a "transformation" of attitudes to mental health and the services offered to people who experience mental health issues. She highlighted the need to help children and teenagers, which is of course extremely important. Not only are many sufferers of eating disorders and other mental illnesses young, but we hear from many older people that they have suffered with their eating disorder for many years, with the illness becoming more ingrained and therefore harder to treat over time.
Treatment for mental illnesses should be easy to access and offered as early as possible, and Theresa May was right when she referred to the current failings in this area when it comes to young people as a "burning injustice". But we know many people are also developing eating disorders in later life, after the point at which they might be expected to. What we hear and what this new research suggests is that they are being overlooked when it comes to accessing treatment, or don't feel able to seek help in the first place. This too is an injustice that needs urgently addressing.
In fact, out of the 5,320 women who took part in the study, less than 30% said that they had sought help or received treatment for their eating disorder. Dr. Nadia Micali, who led the research, said: "Many of the women who took part in this study told us this was the first time they had ever spoken about their eating difficulties... It may be that there are some barriers women perceive in healthcare access or a lack of awareness among healthcare professionals."
Beat are working hard to dismantle these barriers. This year, our annual Eating Disorders Awareness Week (27 February - 5 March) will focus on the importance of early intervention. Understanding from healthcare professionals and from society in general is a vital part of getting people who suffer with these illnesses into treatment as soon as possible, giving them the best chance of recovery. We'll also be supporting the Government's initiatives to help people with mental illnesses in any way we can, and we urge the Government to commit to making sure everyone, no matter what their age, gets the help they need.
All people with eating disorders undoubtedly struggle when it comes to seeking understanding, support, and treatment, in large part because of the stigma and misconceptions around these serious mental illnesses. Eating disorders can affect anybody, no matter what their age, gender, or background; we know this. But assumptions about who can develop these illnesses make it harder for people to ask for and get support, especially when they don't fit the stereotype. We have a long way to go to make sure that everyone with an eating disorder, including older people, has a voice.
If you're worried you might have an eating disorder or concerned about someone you know, visit www.b-eat.co.uk, or call the Beat helpline on 0345 634 1414.