Just like the rest of our body, our breasts go through natural changes throughout our lives, often brought on by hormonal fluctuations during times such as puberty and menopause.
It’s normal for our breasts to lose firmness and shape as we age due to changes in the tissue structure and for some unavoidable drooping to occur.
But an important change to look out for is the development of cysts or lumps, which are more common in women over the age of 50.
While most lumps tend to be benign, it’s important for women aged between 50 and 74 to attend regular breast screens every two years. Talk to your GP if you notice a lump in your breast, nipple discharge or a breast change that concerns you.
Most breast changes are because of hormonal activity that naturally occurs as we age.
Dr Deborah Pfeiffer, a senior medical officer with BreastScreen Queensland, says that our breasts can look and feel quite different pre- and post-menopause.
“When we’re young, our breasts are predominantly composed of glandular tissue, fibrous tissue and a small amount of fat,” she says.
“As we age the amount of fat in our breasts tends to increase and as we approach and reach menopause the amount of glandular tissue decreases in the majority of women.”
The loss of that glandular tissue can cause our breasts to soften and droop slightly.
As part of their menstrual cycle, many younger women notice their breasts increasing in size and becoming more tender prior to menstruation, and then feeling more ‘normal’ once the period is over.
You may notice these symptoms are amplified in the years leading up to menopause.
“Those cyclical changes sometimes get slightly worse in the two to five years immediately before menopause,” Dr Pfeiffer says.
“Women may notice an increase in the amount of tenderness in their breasts, which decreases after menopause and then most often disappears.”
Additionally, the contraceptive pill and hormone replacement therapy can increase glandular tissue and cause our breasts to change in size and feel over time.
While these changes are considered normal, other medications can cause more uncomfortable symptoms.
“Some medications can be associated with breasts changes including the swelling of the breast and nipple discharge and it’s important to know if you develop a breast change while you’re on a new medication you may need to get that checked,” Dr Pfeiffer says.
Along with fluctuations in size, you may notice a number of other physical changes in your breasts as you age, including:
- Areola becoming smaller
- Stretch marks
- Sagging or flatter breasts
- Lumps (can be benign or cancerous)
- Nipple discharge
While most physical changes are considered normal, puckering, redness, or thickening of breast skin, a pulled-in nipple, bloody or watery nipple discharge, breast pain, or hard lumps are not always considered normal ageing changes.
You should consult your GP if you develop any of these symptoms.
Maintaining breast health
The risk of developing breast cancer increases with age, and lifestyle factors, such as being overweight and alcohol consumption, can also contribute.
To reduce this lifestyle risk, doctors recommend maintaining a healthy weight, eating a healthy and balanced diet and avoiding or limiting alcohol intake to one or less standard drink per day.
Ultimately, the best way to reduce your risk of breast cancer is to attend a breast screen once every two years from the age of 50 and over.
Unlike self-examination, breast screens can detect a cancer as small as five millimetres in diameter, while a lump would have to be the size of a cherry for woman to feel it through self-examination.
Waiting until you can feel the lump means that if it was cancerous, the cancer would most likely be far more developed before it’s discovered, potentially making treatment more difficult.
You can book your free breast screen appointment online at www.breastscreen.qld.gov.au or by calling 13 20 50.
No doctor’s referral is necessary.
Have you noticed changes in your breasts over the years? Do you attend regular breast screens?