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A New Wrinkle on Old Research

Damaging  ‘Old Talk’ Is Pervasive Among Middle-Age Women, Researchers Find

The vast majority of eating disorders appear in girls and women between the ages of 9 and 26. However, doctors and researchers are beginning to understand that significant numbers of older women also cope with these disorders on a regular basis. In a study published in 2013 in the Journal of Eating Disorders, an international research team examined the impact of a phenomenon called old talk on a woman’s risks for developing an eating disorder in later life. These researchers concluded that old talk contributes significantly to eating disorder risks.

Statistics in Girls and Younger Women

Girls and women account for 85 percent to 90 percent of identified eating disorder cases in the U.S. Fully 95 percent of all people affected by these disorders are preteens, teenagers or young adults below the age of 30, according to figures compiled by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. Roughly 86 percent of cases occur in people age 20 or younger, while approximately 43 percent of cases appear in the five-year span between the ages of 16 and 20. Whether or not they have a diagnosable eating disorder, more than 50 percent of all teenage girls try to control their weight through such unsafe methods as avoiding eating, smoking or purging calories through laxative abuse or vomiting.

Statistics in Older Women

Only a few modern studies have focused on the presence of eating disorders in women age 30 or older. In one such study, published in 2012 in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, researchers from the University of North Carolina used online questionnaires to examine eating disorder-related issues in 1,849 women age 50 or older. The researchers concluded that four out of five of these women see weight and body shape as essential factors in their everyday sense of well-being. Over 40 percent of the participants weighed or examined their bodies daily, while roughly 36 percent had dieted for at least two and a half of the previous five years. Slightly more than 13 percent of the women in the study reported the presence of symptoms that could qualify them for an eating disorder diagnosis.

Old Talk Basics

Old talk is the general term for statements or conversations that center on negative perceptions of one’s own age or negative comparisons to another person’s age. Examples of statements that meet this definition include things such as “I’ve got so many wrinkles on my face,” or “She looks much younger than I do.” While old talk may seem like a harmless activity, it can potentially make significant contributions to something called body dissatisfaction. People who are dissatisfied with their bodies start comparing themselves in negative terms with others and often (consciously or unconsciously) use those comparisons as reasons for changing their eating behaviors.

Current Findings

In the study published in the Journal of Eating Disorders, researchers from Trinity University and the University of the West of England examined the links between old talk, body dissatisfaction and eating disorder risks in a group of 914 Australian, British and American women between the ages of 18 and 87. The age range of the participants was so wide because the researchers also wanted to examine the body dissatisfaction- and eating disorder-related effects of another form of negative speech called fat talk.

After reviewing questionnaires submitted by the study participants, the researchers made several important findings. First, they concluded that old talk tends to appear in women as their bodies start to diverge from the thin-centered beauty aesthetic that dominates so many aspects of modern culture. Altogether, 66 percent of the participants engaged in old talk to one degree or another. The level of participation increased steadily along with the age of the women answering the questionnaires. Critically, the study’s authors concluded that old talk plays an important role in increasing a woman’s level of body dissatisfaction, anxiety toward the aging process and desire to remain thin. In turn, these factors contribute to increased risks for developing symptoms that indicate the presence of a diagnosable eating disorder. The highest old talk-related eating disorder risks occur in women age 46 or older.

Considerations

The authors of the study in the Journal of Eating Disorders concluded that old talk and fat talk are overlapping but separate issues. While both types of negative commentary increase the risks for body dissatisfaction and eating disorders for the majority of women, fat talk has a measurably worse overall impact on these risks than old talk. Still, participation in fat talk typically starts to decline in women over the age of 60.

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