As women get older, it’s a common misconception that incontinence is inevitable. Experiencing leaks as we age, has become a characterization of aging when, in fact, urinary incontinence, while common, is not a part of the aging process. Specifically, we’re talking about Stress Urinary Incontinence, SUI, or Light Bladder LeaksI in older women. It impacts around 15 million adult women in the U.S. alone. So what is SUI, and how does it impact older women?
About Stress Urinary IncontinenceStress Urinary Incontinence is the accidental urine leakage that occurs when you put stress on your bladder or urinary tract. This is due to the weakening of the pelvic floor muscles that regulate and control the flow of urine, causing little leaks during activity. Activities that can trigger SUI leaks can range from high-impact like running or jumping to pretty typical day-to-day activities like coughing or bending down. The actual leakage can range from a couple of drops to a stream of urine. There are actually two kinds of SUI -
- Urethral Hypermobility - the urethra shifts due to a change in abdominal pressure
- Intrinsic Sphincteric Deficiency (ISD) - the sphincter muscle doesn’t seal off correctly at the bladder
Aging and IncontinenceWhile women of all ages can experience stress incontinence, it can impact older women in particular. Age is actually a factor of SUI, but again, while it is a common problem it’s not a normal part of the process. Older women can experience incontinence after pelvic surgeries like a hysterectomy, a process that removes the uterus and ovaries for medical purposes. Women that have had vaginal births are more likely to develop SUI later in life as well. After around age 30, our muscles stop growing and developing and we start losing muscle mass and function with a phenomenon called age-related sarcopenia. This is true for women and their pelvic floor muscles as well, which is another reason that older women may experience SUI more often. Menopausal women, specifically in the perimenopause stage, commonly have SUI develop during this period of life. This is due to the lower levels of estrogen produced thinning the lining of the urethra. These factors that increase the likelihood of developing SUI later in life are pretty normal and healthy for a woman to experience, which is perhaps why it is so common to develop. While it is common, a lot of older women struggle with the embarrassment of having stress incontinence.
Impact on Mental and Physical HealthOlder women who have the occasional leak with stress incontinence often feel alone in dealing with it. It’s hard to discuss urinary problems with friends and family members because it is embarrassing to talk about. Some choose to isolate themselves and avoid social interaction to prevent embarrassing moments or a cleanup. But isolating oneself later in life can negatively impact mental and physical health. Studies have shown that social isolation increases the risk of:
- High Blood Pressure
- Heart Disease
- Alzheimer’s Disease
- Weakened Immune System