How Breasts Change With Age

Hormone Shifts and Gravity Work Together

Getty Breasts
It's natural for breasts to changes as you age. PhotoAlto/Rafal Strzechowski PhotoAlto Agency RF Collections/Getty Images

As a close friend recently observed, "I used to have oranges, now I have bananas."  While her joke about breast changes might be less than flattering, the fact is that breast tissue does shift in composition - and shape - as we age. 

A premenopausal adult woman's breasts are made up of fat, tissue, and mammary glands.  As menopause approaches, levels of the hormone estrogen drop, and the mammary glands estrogen stimulates are reduced.

  Shrinking mammary glands can be replaced by fat, which results in softer, less full breasts. 

In addition, connective tissue within the breast breaks down and this loss of internal scaffolding can cause breast sag.  Other factors like number of pregnancies, smoking, weight gain, and genetics can all play a role in how saggy your breasts become.  Breastfeeding has largely been discounted as a cause of breast droop.

Tissue changes:  According to the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), lumps in the breast are not unusual during menopause, and are often benign (non-cancerous) cysts. Most breast changes are not cancerous, reports the US National Cancer Institute (NCI).  You may feel tenderness or lumps in your breasts even if you are not having a period during menopause, and these changes don't mean something is wrong.

However, there are a number of changes that you should check out promptly with your health-care provider, without waiting for your next physical exam or mammogram.

  These include:

  • A hard lump or bump on the breast or under your arm
  • Change in shape or size of your breast
  • Discharge from the nipple
  • Itchy, red or scaly skin on the breast

Breast cancer risk: One of the greatest risk factors for breast cancer is advancing age.  Almost 8 out of 10 breast cancer cases happen in women over the age of 50.

  According to the National Cancer Institute, women have the following chances of getting breast cancer by decade, over the age of 40:

Age 40:   1.47 percent (or 1 in 68)
Age 50:   2.38 percent (or 1 in 42)
Age 60:   3.56 percent (or 1 in 28)
Age 70:   3.82 percent (or 1 in 26)

Factors like a personal history of breast cancer, family medical history, alcohol intake, physical inactivity and being obese or overweight can increase your chances of developing breast cancer.  The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends getting both a clinical breast exam and a mammogram once a year after the age of 40.

A breast self-exam is a valuable way to become familiar with what is normal for your body, but is not a substitute for a doctor's exam, or mammogram.

  • See the American Cancer Society's breast exam recommendations here

Finally, most women do experience changes in the way their breasts look and feel over the course of their lifetime. Fortunately, most of these shifts are simply cosmetic changes related to aging, rather than signs of more serious age-related diseases.

If you feel your breasts just aren't what they used to be (or, as I sometimes joke - where they used to be!), you may want to have a professional bra fitting to make sure you're wearing the right bra shape and size for your changing body.

f you're considering more invasive measures such as a breast lift (mastopexy) to rejuvenate your breasts, our Plastic Surgery Expert has background information on the procedure here.

Sources:

Aging Changes in the Breast. US National Institutes of Health Public Information Sheet. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003999.htm

Breast Cancer Risk in American Women. US National Cancer Institute Public Information Sheet. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/detection/probability-breast-cancer

Cancer Facts For People Over 50. US National Institute on Aging Public Information Sheet.http://www.nia.nih.gov/health/publication/cancer-facts-people-over-50

Understanding Breast Changes: A Health Guide for Women. US National Cancer Institute Public Information Sheet.
http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/screening/understanding-breast-changes

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