How do the breasts change with age and why?
Aging affects everyone differently. Age-related changes in the breasts are not usually harmful but are a natural part of aging.
These changes in the breasts occur as a result of low estrogen levels and changes in skin elasticity. Aging also increases the risk of developing growths, such as fibroids, cysts, and cancer, all of which can affect the appearance of the breasts.
In this article, we explain how aging affects the breasts and discuss treatment options and prevention tips.
How does aging affect the breasts?
Changes in the shape and texture of a person's breasts are a natural part of aging.
Over time, estrogen levels drop, which leads to a loss of gland tissue in the breast. Along with changes in skin elasticity, this may cause the breasts to appear smaller and lower down than before. The nipples may also change in appearance.
Possible breast changes that may occur as a result of aging include:
- stretch marks or wrinkles appearing on the breast skin
- the breasts looking elongated, stretched, or flattened
- extra space between the breasts
Changes to the breasts can occur due to:
Low estrogen levels
As females get older, their bodies start to produce less of the reproductive hormone estrogen than before. Estrogen stimulates the growth of breast tissue, while low levels of this hormone cause the mammary glands to shrink. Fat may fill the new space, making the breasts appear softer and less full.
Low estrogen levels can also cause connective tissue in the breast to lose its elasticity and become dehydrated.
These changes can cause the breasts to appear smaller, and they may seem to sag.
Other symptoms of low estrogen include:
- irregular or absent periods
- hot flashes
- night sweats
- breast tenderness
- changes in mood
- difficulty concentrating
- bone loss
According to the Office on Women's Health, females officially reach menopause when they do not have a menstrual period for at least 12 continuous months. In the United States, the average age for menopause is 52 years.
Over time, the skin starts to become thinner, lose fat, and develop wrinkles and age spots. In the same way, the breasts start to lose fat, and the tissues lose elasticity. As a result, they appear smaller and lower down.
Growths in the breast tissue
The chances of developing growths in the breast, such as fibroids, cysts, and tumors, increases with age. In most cases, these lumps are noncancerous, and most females have them. However, it is important to get a doctor to check any new lumps.
Noncancerous lumps can include the following:
- Fibroids are benign growths consisting of fibrous connective tissue.
- Cysts are round, tender lumps that contain fluid. A complex cyst can contain both solid and liquid components.
- Ductal or lobular hyperplasia occurs when the cells that line the milk ducts grow excessively.
- Fibroadenomas refer to benign tumors comprising glandular and connective tissue. According to the American Cancer Society, fibroadenomas most often affect females in their 20s and 30s.
- Intraductal papillomas are benign tumors that grow inside the milk ducts. They often cause bloody discharge from the nipples.
- Adenosis causes enlarged lobules in the breast. These sometimes contain calcium deposits, which can make them resemble cancer on a mammogram.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), doctors most commonly diagnose breast cancer in people 50 years of age or older. However, it is important for younger adults to conduct regular breast self-examinations and attend regular mammograms.
Cancer cells may develop into growths that people can feel under the skin during breast self-exams.
Other symptoms can include:
- swelling in the breast
- redness, scaling, or dimpling of the breast skin
- nipple retraction
- nipple discharge
Hormone therapy affects the amount of hormones that the body produces.
Doctors often use this type of therapy to treat hormone receptor-positive breast cancer by slowing the growth of cancer cells.
Hormone therapy can make the breasts appear firmer or more dense. These changes can also occur if people take menopause hormone therapy or hormonal birth control.
When to see a doctor
People should contact their doctor if they experience the following symptoms of an underlying medical condition:
- puckering, redness, or thickening of the breast skin
- hard lumps in the breast
- nipple dimpling or retraction
- abnormal nipple discharge
Aging is a natural process, and age-related changes to the breast are not harmful and do not need treatment.
However, if a person feels uncomfortable with changes in their breasts, they can talk to a doctor about the following options:
- cosmetic surgery that uses implants or injections to make the breasts appear fuller
- cosmetic surgery to reposition the nipples
- treatments and home remedies for stretch marks
Maintaining a healthy body weight through regular exercise and a balanced diet may also help reduce age-related changes to the breasts.
Using sunscreen can help lessen age-related breast changes.
Although there is no way to prevent the natural aging process entirely, people can lessen the likelihood of significant age-related breast changes by:
- wearing supportive bras
- exercising regularly
- eating a balanced diet
- maintaining a healthy body weight
- minimizing sun damage by limiting sun exposure and wearing sunscreen
- quitting smoking
As a person ages, their body produces fewer reproductive hormones. This drop in hormone levels contributes to changes in the shape and texture of the breasts.
Low estrogen levels can cause the mammary glands to shrink and the connective tissue in the breast to lose its elasticity. These changes may make the breasts appear soft or flattened.
Breast aging is a natural process. If a person is uncomfortable with the changes, they can manage them using cosmetic surgery and topical ointments.
Quitting smoking can help preserve healthy skin and tissue. Leading a healthy lifestyle by getting regular physical activity and eating a balanced diet may help minimize the extent of age-related breast changes.