A Lifetime of Healthy Breasts
A guide to keeping your breasts healthy now and in the years to come.
By Katherine Kam
WebMD Feature, Reviewed by Mikio A. Nihira, MD
Breasts: Some women worry that theirs are too big or too small or not as firm and youthful as they once were, but here’s one thing that every woman wants — healthy breasts for a lifetime.
As you enter your 30s, 40s, and 50s, your breasts change along with the rest of your body. In your childbearing years, you may wonder whether breastfeeding will affect your shape. After menopause, you might be more concerned about breast cancer risk. WebMD asked breast specialists to guide women through each important decade.
Your Breasts in Your 30s
During this decade, hormones like estrogen help to keep breasts firm. Breasts contain no muscles. Rather, they consist of fibrous tissue, fatty tissue, plus dense glandular tissue that includes milk-producing glands called lobules and ducts to carry milk.
Fortunately, in the 30s, breast problems tend to be benign (noncancerous). Younger women commonly experience fibrocystic breast disease, a broad term that is characterized by breast pain, cysts, and noncancerous lumpiness. “Breast pain can be cyclic, coming with menstrual periods, or it can be more persistent,” says Leona Downey, MD, assistant professor of clinical medicine at the University of Arizona Health Sciences Center.
What helps ease breast pain? Avoiding caffeine, says Elizabeth Steiner, MD, associate professor at Oregon Health and Science University and director of the Oregon Cancer Institute Breast Health Education Program.
Fibroadenomas can also affect women in their 30s. These rubbery lumps made of fibrous and glandular tissue aren’t cancerous, but they can hurt. If they’re bothersome, they can be surgically removed, Downey says.
Worried About Breast Sagging?
During this decade, which has become more popular for childbearing, breastfeeding offers mothers some long-term protection against breast cancer. “One of the best gifts they can give themselves and their babies is to breastfeed for as long as possible,” Steiner says.
But some women worry that breastfeeding will cause breast sagging. Experts tell WebMD, however, that nursing doesn’t actually cause breast tissue to droop. Instead, breast swelling during lactation can stretch the skin over the breast. “Then when your breasts shrink again, you have this loose skin that appears to sag more than it did before,” Downey says.
In fact, one 2007 study presented at an American Society of Plastic Surgeons conference exonerated breastfeeding. But it named other culprits that contribute to sagging: larger pre-pregnancy bra cup size, greater number of pregnancies, cigarette smoking (which can weaken skin elasticity), and older age.
As the years go by, breasts become less glandular and fattier, which makes them less firm. Another factor is the stretching of fibrous bands in the breast called Cooper’s ligaments. “They’re fibrous tissue that holds the breast up a bit, and those can stretch over time, and that leads to some of the sagging, too,” Downey says. Hence the term “Cooper’s droopers.”
Experts tell WebMD you can’t do much to slow or prevent sagging. Because the breasts contain no muscles, you can’t really exercise your way to a perkier chest.
However, some doctors advise women to wear sports bras during jogging to prevent bouncing that can stretch the ligaments. “Wearing a tight-fitting bra on a regular basis probably doesn’t make a big difference,” Downey says, “but wearing a bra that prevents a lot of bouncing, like with jogging, probably does minimize stretching of those fibrous bands.”
About the author
Katherine Kam is a journalist in California who has written for WebMD, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and Time Inc. publications. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of California at Davis and a master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.