February 27, 2006
Contact: Jerry Carey
Phone: (856) 566-6171
At UMDNJ-School of Osteopathic Medicine
Eating Disorders in the Elderly May Be Under Diagnosed
STRATFORD—Although eating disorders occur primarily in young women and men, they can also occur in older individuals. Refusal to eat by the elderly - and subsequent malnutrition - can often result from the physiologic changes associated with aging, dementia and depression, or as a result of a food phobia known as sitophobia, according to a psychiatrist at the UMDNJ-School of Osteopathic Medicine
"One of the disorders we've seen in older patients is a food phobia that results when the patient, who may have been bed-bound as a result of an illness, has an episode of incontinence," said Dr. David Rissmiller, the chair of Psychiatry at the UMDNJ-School of Osteopathic Medicine. "These patients are so mortified that they avoid eating out of fear that it will cause them to have another occurrence."
"Like all phobias, this fear of food is created by the unconscious mind as a protective mechanism," said Dr. Rissmiller. "In this case the cause is a linking of the fear and embarrassment caused by the traumatic loss of bowel control to food or eating, which are then avoided."
A similar food phobia can be caused by a traumatic choking episode, followed by fear and avoidance of swallowing food or liquids, said Dr. Rissmiller.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, which sponsors National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (Feb. 26 - March 4), as many as 35 million Americans struggle with eating disorders. Eating disorders usually occur in individuals in their teens and twenties, but can show up in children as young as six and adults well into their 70s.
"Eating disorders in the elderly can be devastating," Dr. Rissmiller said. "We know that about one-third of nursing home residents are malnourished simply because they can’t or won’t eat. Staffing in nursing homes is not sufficient to individually feed all the patients that need it. What we don't know is how many of these individuals suffer from food phobia or some other eating disorder that could be treated."
To request an interview with Dr. Rissmiller, please contact Jerry Carey, University News Service, at (856) 566-6171 or (973) 972-3000.