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.
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.
It is first important to remember that you’re not alone. While urinary incontinence may make you feel socially isolated, it’s a very common problem, especially among women over 50.
Even celebrities struggle with urinary incontinence. For example, Kim Kardashian’s mother, Kris Jenner, has been shown struggling with incontinence multiple times on “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”
If you’re experiencing symptoms and feel uncomfortable, it may be a good idea to confide in friends. Speaking about your experience cannot only break the stigma around incontinence, but it may be just what a friend needs to make steps towards treatment.
Swenson encourages women to speak with their doctors about incontinence.
“Consider scheduling a separate appointment so it doesn’t get overlooked or minimized because of other health concerns,” Swenson suggested. “Women can also ask for a referral to see a urogynecologist or urologist, doctors who specialize in the medical and surgical management of urinary incontinence.”
If even just saying the words “urinary incontinence” makes you uncomfortable, Brito recommends writing a note.
“If you are feeling embarrassed or finding it difficult to bring up to your doctor, write down your concerns (note when it happens, and how often),” she said. “When you are nervous, you may forget, but having a note will help you to recall your concerns and ask your doctor on some next steps.”
Worse comes to worst, you can hand the note to your doctor so they can read about your symptoms if you are having troubles verbalizing your concerns.
The best part about telling your doctor about urinary incontinence, is that is incredibly treatable. Because it’s such a common ailment, there are many options for treatment.
For those with minor incontinence, you may simply need to strengthen your pelvic muscles. You can do this by doing daily Kegel exercises or using insertable pelvic trainers like Elvie.
Elvie connects via Bluetooth to your phone making strengthening your bladder into a mobile game. There are also more in-depth treatment options such as physical therapy, medication, and in some extreme cases, surgery.
Urinary incontinence affects women from all walks of life. With more than half of women over 65 reporting symptoms, it is a common issue that can be treated. But many women aren’t talking to their doctor about their symptoms.