Despite stereotypes about aging, there are many advantages to getting older.
Our life experiences can be reflected on and enjoyed, and may actually lead us to make smarter decisions. We have a greater sense of self, with the confidence that comes from escaping those awkward years of youth. Gratitude for family and enjoying time with friends is another benefit of aging.1
Unfortunately, pelvic floor disorders can also be a consequence of aging. Particularly for women, the prevalence of pelvic floor dysfunction can increase as we get older.
What Is Pelvic Floor Dysfunction?
Your pelvic floor is the term given to the muscles that support your pelvic organs and help control urination and bowel movements. This hammock-like support inside the bones keeps your bladder, intestines and reproductive organs in place. When these muscles are too loose or too tight, problems can occur.
Here are some examples of pelvic floor dysfunction, when these muscles become weak, tight or otherwise damaged:
- Pelvic Organ Prolapse, a condition that occurs when your uterus, bladder, rectum or other tissues and organs drop from their normal position.
- Incontinence or urinary leakage.
- Difficult bowel movements or constipation.
- Incomplete bladder emptying or a weak urinary stream.
- Accidental bowel leakage, or fecal incontinence.
- Pain during sex.
Is Age a Risk Factor for Pelvic Floor Dysfunction?
There are different risk factors for the medical conditions that can impact the health of our pelvic floor. However, it appears that aging is one risk factor for many pelvic floor conditions. Several studies have looked at the connection between age and pelvic floor dysfunction.
In one study, researchers looked at the prevalence of pelvic floor disorders related to age, race and body mass index or BMI. By studying the records of over 25,000 women, and comparing the pervasiveness of urinary incontinence, pelvic organ prolapse, and bowel dysfunction, they found that 32% of women had at least one pelvic floor condition.2
Older age and higher BMI were “strongly and significantly associated” with each pelvic dysfunction category, except between BMI and prolapse in these results.2
Another study examined the prevalence of pelvic floor disorders and their relationship to gender, age and other factors. It found that pelvic floor disorders are in fact very common and are strongly associated with female gender, aging, and pregnancy.3
For instance, the highest prevalence of urinary incontinence was reported in women aged 70-74 years, at 51.9%.3
These researchers also concluded that pregnancy, regardless of whether it resulted in a vaginal delivery or a cesarean section, greatly increased the prevalence of major pelvic floor dysfunction. That was defined as any type of incontinence, symptoms of prolapse or previous pelvic floor surgery.3
What Can Older Women Do About Pelvic Floor Dysfunction?
As you age, you should be mindful of your pelvic health, and be on the alert for symptoms of pelvic floor dysfunction. Aging may either add to a pre-existing condition or interact with other risk factors like childbirth, being overweight, or simply being born with weak connective tissue.4
It’s also possible that hormonal changes may impact the muscles of the pelvic floor. Tissue may become more rigid, providing less support, or simply weaken as we age and our hormones change.4
There’s also the fact that our pelvic region undergoes a lot of stress over the years, as we get pregnant, have several children, and go through menopause.4 Years of habits that aren’t helpful also contribute, like straining during bowel movements or holding urine too long.5 Aging may be associated with pelvic floor dysfunction, but it does not appear to be a direct cause of it.4
Maintaining your health is one way to combat pelvic floor dysfunction. Doctors recommend quitting smoking, for instance, eating healthy, and performing pelvic floor exercises like Kegels.
If you have been diagnosed with a pelvic floor disorder, then there are different treatment options. Depending on the condition, there are different regimens that can help. Some non-surgical treatments like physical therapy may be attempted first.
For instance, physical therapists may work with you on a technique known as bladder retraining, which can help with incontinence by using what are called “urge suppression techniques” to reduce urgency.5
But your doctor may recommend surgery, including laparoscopic and other less invasive techniques.4
Early diagnosis is important as your doctor may be able to take steps prior to resorting to surgery. If you’re experiencing symptoms of a pelvic floor condition, it’s important that you don’t wait until the symptoms worsen, as your treatment options may be limited the longer you wait.5
Finding a Doctor
If you suspect you have a pelvic floor disorder, or you’d like to do more to prevent these conditions as you age, then seek out the advice of a doctor. Use our Physician Finder to find a doctor near you with expertise in women’s health, who can help with advice and treatment for pelvic floor conditions.