The common problem is often overlooked at the doctor’s office.
Urinary incontinence, the inability to control your bladder, is common for older women.
A recent survey by AARP and the University of Michigan found that incontinence affects 51 percent of women over the age of 65.
Among women ages 50 to 64, approximately 43 percent of women have struggled with some form of incontinence.
It can show up in many forms, from minor, occasional incontinence to a daily, life-changing struggle.
But few women seek help.
According to the poll published last month, only one-third of women report their struggles with incontinence to their doctors, and only 38 percent of these women do any kind of exercise to combat incontinence.
The health problems of incontinence
Dr. Elizabeth Patton, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Boston University School of Medicine, describes the different symptom clusters of urinary incontinence as “urge symptoms (having the sensation to urinate and not making it to the bathroom in time) and urinary leakage (such as with exertion or coughing, laughing, or sneezing).”
Whether these women wake up many times at night to use the restroom or have issues with leakage, incontinence is far more common than many seem to believe.
For problems that can veer quickly from slight annoyance to truly problematic, why do these women avoid reporting their symptoms to their doctors?
Well, health experts have a few explanations. The first is that it’s not normally part of a routine checkup. Unfortunately, many primary care doctors do not bring up the topic without prompting.
Dr. Carolyn Swenson, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Michigan, who ran the initial poll, says this causes women to think incontinence is not an issue they can solve.
“Many women have the perception that urinary incontinence is a normal part of aging,” Swenson explained. “[They often believe it is] something they just have to learn to manage on their own. They may think it’s not a real medical problem or be unaware of all the treatment options available.”
It is important to recognize it is a real medical problem. While urinary incontinence affects many women as they age, it’s a treatable ailment that shouldn’t be ignored.
Another reason many women don’t speak to their doctors about their urinary incontinence is because they feel embarrassed.
As children we’re taught it’s embarrassing to be unable to control our bladders and this stigma carries through to adulthood, Swenson says,
“[Women] may be embarrassed or find it difficult to bring up if a doctor doesn’t ask them specifically about it.” This is a totally reasonable feeling, but there are a few methods to ease into speaking to a doctor about urinary incontinence.
Beyond being potentially embarrassing or inconvenient, sexologist Janet Brito, PhD, points out that urinary incontinence can lead to sexual difficulties as well.
“Research shows that urinary incontinence may impact your sexual functioning,” Brito explained. “You may experience low sexual desire, avoid sexual activity, and/or feel sexually uncomfortable.”
While sexual side effects don’t always coincide with incontinence symptoms, it’s important to address symptoms, as they can escalate the longer they’re left untreated.