Most women are familiar with the very basics of how their breasts change as they get older. As a child, a girl has a flat chest. During puberty, breasts develop and menstruation starts. With pregnancy and weight changes, the breasts may become larger and then smaller, and over time, the effects of gravity may begin to cause sagging. However, the breasts go through a number of additional changes throughout a woman’s lifetime.
Puberty and young adulthood
Women are born with the nipples and early stages of milk ducts already in tact; however, during puberty, many changes to the breasts and the rest of the body begin to take place. As the ovaries begin to secrete estrogen, even before a woman starts to menstruate, the breasts begin to develop as fat accumulates. The areolas and nipples also frequently darken and may become larger. By early adulthood, the breasts are nearly completely formed with mature milk ducts, secretory glands, and lobules in anticipation of the body being ready for childbearing. Many young women also begin to experience symptoms such as breast pain or tenderness related to menstruation.
Pregnancy and lactation
Breast changes are one of the earliest signs of pregnancy, sometimes even before a woman has missed a period. The production of the hormone progesterone during pregnancy causes many rapid changes to the breasts, from swelling of the breasts to darkening of the areola and nipples, and more. Tenderness along the sides of the breasts is typically due to the development of numerous additional lobules and growth of the milk duct system in anticipation of breast feeding after the baby is born. Several months before birth, the breasts are already capable of producing breast milk (typically by the fifth or sixth month of pregnancy). Throughout pregnancy, the blood vessels in the breasts may also appear larger or more visible. These are all normal changes as the body prepares to give birth and then nourish the baby.
Menopause and breast changes
By the time a woman reaches her mid- to late-40s, her hormone levels are already tapering off in preparation for menopause, even if she doesn’t actually start menopause until much later. The result is usually seen in the breasts first. The same hormones that stimulate breast growth in puberty, estrogen, begin to taper off. The result is that the breasts begin to lose their milk-producing capabilities. The breasts may appear to shrink or sag and lose shape as the connective tissues supporting the breasts lose elasticity. It is common for the skin of the breasts to feel or appear dry and for a woman to experience a decrease in breast size by as much as an entire cup.
Breast changes that may occur at any age
Some breast changes may occur at any age. The breasts may develop stretch marks or the space between the breasts may appear to widen. The breasts may also change in shape and volume. Additionally, many women experience breast lumps. Breast lumps may occur for a number of reasons, ranging from normal hormonal fluctuations to a tendency towards dense breast tissue, to more serious conditions such as breast cancer. Should you notice any lumps or unexpected breast changes, consult your doctor right away. While the vast majority of changes are harmless, it never hurts to get checked out just to be sure. Your doctor is your best option for determining if the changes you are experiencing are cause for concern or not. In particular is the concern for breast cancer. The earlier breast cancer is detected, the easier it is to treat and the more likely it is to survive.
To learn more about your breasts, breast health, and your breast care options, call Monarch Plastic Surgery today at (913) 663-3838 for our Leawood and Lansing offices or (816) 436-3262 for our Kansas City office.