Dangerous Extremes

Eating Disorders Killing Thousands Of Older Women Each Year

When John Melillo met Pat in high school, he says she was the prettiest girl he ever saw. The couple, who've been living the good life in Long Island, New York, have been married 36 years and now have two children, Bret and Beth.

Pat, who is 5'4" and weighed 110 pounds, began suffering from stomach problems five years ago. When her doctor recommended a low fat diet, Pat took his advice to a dangerous extreme – and went on a diet that spiraled out of control. Correspondent Peter Van Sant reports.

"I was trying to eat healthy. That's what I thought I was doing," she says. "I was told to stay away from fats and little by little there was just no more fat in my diet."

But she cut out much more than that. Eventually, everyday for breakfast, she'd eat egg whites and just the edge of a pancake. She'd skip lunch. And for dinner, she had broccoli and a bite of salmon.

"I just wasn't giving my body variety of nutrition, and that's where I led into trouble," says Pat, who was slowly starving.

She says she became obsessed with what she thought was the perfect diet: "It just started to become a game … not realizing it was like a death wish."

Then last year it got worse. She dropped to 73 pounds and had to be hospitalized.

"I had four different doctors tell me over the course of last year, 'Expect this woman to die at any time,'" recalls husband, John.

Pat, 55, suffers from what doctors are calling a growing epidemic: middle age women with eating disorders, like anorexia and bulimia. The illness, which commonly affects teen girls, is now killing thousands of women young and old every year.

"The fatality rate, okay of anorexia alone is upwards of 20 percent -- that's 1 in five [who] die," says Dr. Ira Sacker, one of the world's foremost experts on eating disorders. "We're talking about the highest mortality rate of any emotional disease known."

"She looked like the walking dead," says Pat's daughter, Beth, who witnessed her mom wasting away. "I saw this beautiful woman who is my mother turn into like an old woman."

Pat went into in the Eating Disorder Unit at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, N.J. She's been here for eight weeks.

"I think if she hadn't come in she might have died a few weeks later," says Dr. Joseph Donnelan, the unit's medical director. "She was so malnourished that she had a hole in her lung. She was at risk of having a heart attack at any time."

"I had a lot of medical issues when I came in and I didn't know which end was up," says Pat, who is now getting help through group therapy. Her meals are carefully planned so she gains weight.

Before Pat arrived at Somerset, she was eating only 300 calories a day. When she was healthy, she'd take in more than 2,000 calories.

"It's like having a super-conscience inside your head which is really telling you, 'No you cannot eat that.' Or, 'Yeah, if you eat one more bite, you're gonna become fat.' And that voice occupies a tremendous amount of space," says Sacker.

"It's like how low can you go," says Pat.

Like Pat, 43-year-old Valerie Garcia of Valley Stream, N.Y., almost starved herself to death.

"If I can, I will go in to get milk and the fruits, just the necessities. It's very rarely a pleasant experience," says Valerie, who is still terrified of food, even on the grocery store shelf. "I can just make myself nuts. Again, it's a mental thing … The thought terrorizes me, the thought of gaining even a little weight is fearful for me."

Valerie, a stay at home mom, suffers from anorexia, but she is also bulimic, which is binge eating and throwing up her food.

"It's the only time I would really enjoy eating and eat foods that I would never eat normally," says Valerie, who dropped from 135 pounds to just 95. "When I look in the mirror, I actually see a fat person. I know intellectually, I know I'm not a fat weight … I feel fat. I look in the mirror. I see fat where obviously there's no fat. I could see other people the way they are, but I cannot view myself."

Valerie's still getting counseling and she's still struggling, seven months after leaving Somerset.

Part II: Measures Of Control