Anorexia used to be regarded as a teenagers' disease. But now, the prevalence of youthful-looking older celebrities such as Sharon Stone and Madonna is being linked to a rise in the number of women in their 50s being treated for anorexia and other eating disorders.
Glamorous images of celebrities in their 40s, 50s and 60s looking as slim and youthful as they did in their 20s may give older women unrealistic expectations of how they should look as they age, experts have warned.
The British Dietetic Association (BDA) says eating disorder clinics are no longer the preserve of young females. Eating disorder specialists say they are increasingly seeing middle-aged women being treated in their clinics.
Ursula Philpot, a dietitian at the Yorkshire Centre for Eating Disorders and chairman of the BDA's Mental Health Group, said older women now made up at least 10 per cent of eating disorder patients. The number of men being treated is also on the rise, she added.
"Ten years ago it was extremely rare to see older women and men with eating disorders in an in-patient unit. But today, in a ward of 20 beds, it is more usual to have at least a couple of older women and one man in at any time," she said.
"While it could be a result of better diagnosis and treating cases in these groups, it may reflect a more general changing demographic trend. But at this stage we just don't know. In response we have had to develop specific treatments to address issues pertinent to these groups."
Deanne Jade, the principal and founder of the National Centre for Eating Disorders, said: "There is a new pressure on older women to stay young. Previously, no one would have expected it – people simply grew old gracefully. Today, people do anything they can to stave off getting old... There are people who had a transitory eating disorder in their teens or 20s, but conquered it. It could be reactivated when they hit their 50s and experience this pressure."
Beat, the national eating disorders charity, said that although the people most likely to be affected by an eating disorder tended to be young women, it was not unusual for an eating disorder to appear in middle age.
Mary George, a spokeswoman for Beat, said: "It is a much more competitive world that we live in now. Older role models such as Sharon Stone, Madonna or Jane Fonda put extra pressure on women and make them worried about their body issues, which can lead to an eating disorder.
"It must be remembered that a full-blown eating disorder is a mental illness, but there is no doubt that these extra pressures on older women could trigger an eating disorder."