Special Report: Battling eating disorders in women over 30

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) - Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, and the disease is not just a teen problem. Many mothers and fathers also struggle with anorexia and bulimia - and they're often overlooked by doctors.

For Donna Friedman, the sound of her feet hitting the pavement is home. A healthy 49-year-old woman, Friedman finds peace in her daily runs.

"I really love to run because it's freeing. It's a great time for me," she said.

But Friedman's runs were at one time surrounded by darkness. She suffered from anorexia nervosa for years.

"I would go to the mall and see people order food and think, 'Gosh, I wish I could do that,'" she said. "But I was obsesses with the scale. It totally took over my life."

Friedman's disease started at the age of 19 while she was a freshman at the University of North Carolina. From there, it was a long battle in and out of treatment that lasted until she was a mother at the age of 42.

It was a long uphill battle for her.

"If you are diagnosed or still struggling at age 35, the odds are against you because you are in the pattern so deeply. And that was what it was for me. It was so ingrained, such a habit," Friedman said.

What was once thought of as a teen disease has been revered by new medical research. Data shows that more women and men in their 30s and 40s are battling anorexia or bulimia.

"Genetically, someone may be predisposed to someone having an eating disorder, and then when you put all the stresses, all the life changes that may occur together at some point, society pulls the trigger and the eating disorder develops," said nutritionist Charlotte Caperton-Kilburn.

And experts say there's a thin line between extreme dieting and mid-life eating disorders.

"If someone spends 90 percent of their time thinking about food, that is an eating disorder," she said. "The average person spends about 20 percent of their time thinking about what they are eating at their meals and how they are going to get it fixed."

Friedman knows that feeling all too well; she says she used to read cookbooks all day to feel full.

"You become completely preoccupied by food because you don't have it, so your mind is trying to get you to have it," she said. "It is an awful disease and I needed someone to tell me that it really is better on the other side."

With motivation of her children and her own will to live, Friedman got to the other side. She's was able to move past anorexia seven years ago.

"It could have gone completely differently for me. That is why I am on a mission," Friedman said.

That mission involves working with the Medical University of South Carolina to open the first eating disorder treatment facility in Charleston.

"If I had the proper care, I don't think my journey would have been so long," she said. "I wouldn't have lost 25 years of my life."

Her journey has taken a turn - from helping herself to helping others so that those battling eating disorders can have to resources to reach the finish line of recovery.

"I did not want to lose this race with anorexia," Friedman said. "I wanted to win."

MUSC's eating disorders clinic is set to open this coming Fall. Until then, if you or someone you know is in need of help for an eating disorder, you can call 843-792-6643.