Is Incontinence a Normal Part of Aging?

A fellow caregiver asked...

Who gets incontinence -- is it a normal part of aging?

Expert Answer

Dr. Leslie Kernisan is the author of a popular blog and podcast at BetterHealthWhileAging.net. She is also a clinical instructor in the University of California, San Francisco, Division of Geriatrics.

Anyone can develop incontinence -- the loss of bladder or bowel control causing leakage -- although certain groups are at higher risk. But it's a myth that incontinence is an expected part of growing older. Incontinence isn't normal; it reflects an underlying problem. Incontinence is a symptom, not a disease.

What is true is that the odds of developing incontinence increase with age. There are several reasons for this:

  • With aging, there is more wear-and-tear on the muscles and other tissues involved with urination and elimination, causing them to weaken and lessening their control.

  • Older women are more likely to have a history of pelvic floor disorders or vaginal prolapse as a result of childbirth or the hormonal changes of menopause.

  • Older men are more likely to have prostate problems, such as an enlarged prostate, which can block urine flow.

  • Increasing age makes one more likely to have had surgeries, such as a hysterectomy or colorectal surgery, that affect the relevant structures.

Women over age 40 are the most likely group to have problems with incontinence. (But younger women and men of all ages can be incontinent, too.) Groups at higher risk include:

  • The overweight and obese (extra weight adds pressure to the abdomen).

  • Diabetics (who may lose the sensation of a full bladder).

  • People with arthritis (who may have difficulty getting to the bathroom in time).

  • People with multiple sclerosis or Parkinson's disease (because of damage to the nerves that control the bladder).

  • Men with prostate problems.