(CBS News) Eating disorders are becoming a big problem for older women, according to new research.
A study from the Eating Disorders Program at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine found more than 60 percent of women over 50 said their body weight or shape negatively affected their lives. For some of the women, the problem went beyond unhappiness and resulted in signs of eating disorders such as bulimia.
"There's this stereotype that eating disorders affect mainly adolescent and young adult women, but that's not what I've been hearing on the street and that's not what we've been seeing in the clinic," study author Dr. Cynthia Bulik, director of UNC's Eating Disorders Program, told CBS This Morning.
For the study, published in the June 21 issue of the International Journal of Eating Disorders, researchers surveyed 1,849 women - mostly white, an average age of 59 - and asked them what they about their body image and whether it affected their eating habits. More than a quarter of the women were obese, 29 percent were overweight, 42 percent were normal weight and 2 percent were underweight.
Sixty-six percent of the women reported that they were unhappy with their overall appearance, with 84 percent of those women saying they were unhappy with their stomach, followed by 73 percent who said they were unhappy with their shape.
The researchers determined that 13 percent of the surveyed women had an eating disorder. Eight percent of the subjects said they purged within the last five years and 3.5 percent reported binge eating in the past month. The behaviors were most common among women in their early 50s, but women over 75 also reported such symptoms.
"The purging number screams out desperation in my mind," Bulik told USA Today. "It's an extreme behavior. Even after age 50, they're desperately trying to control their weight. What really surprised me is that even in the 75-84 age group, they were still endorsing purging," she said.
Other weight issues were also common, with 36 percent of the women saying they spent at least half of the past five years dieting, with 41 percent checking their body daily, and over 40 percent weighing themselves at least twice per week. Many turned to unhealthy methods to change their bodies, including diet pills (7.5 percent of surveyed women), excessive exercise (7 percent), diuretics (2.5 percent), laxatives (2 percent) and vomiting (1 percent).
Sixty-four percent of the women said they thought about their weight or shape daily.
"It had been thought the problem was much smaller," Dr. Edith Rubenstein, an attending psychiatrist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City who was not involved in the research, told HealthDay. "All of these weight and shape concerns are taking up a lot of mental space in women in this age group, surprisingly."
Bulik told CBS This Morning that women are constantly under pressure to not look like they're aging, be it through surgery, cosmetics or other means that lead them "down the path to unhealthy diet behaviors."
She also added that eating disorders contain a biological and genetic component, so a change in women's lives - such as kids leaving the house (or returning in adulthood) or the death of a loved one - combined with this pressure not to age could trigger an eating disorder for some older women.
"There's no niche for a grandma anymore," she said. "This seems to be a cradle to grave ball-and-chain that many women carry around."
Bulik thinks more older men will also develop eating disorders, saying males' in recent years have been increasingly targeted by media and fashion industry.
What can be done to break these body image issues?
Bulik wants women to get themselves out of this "appearance focus," and recommends instead of looking for flaws, focusing on something positive about themselves - a characteristic that will endure long after their looks fade.