There’s a common misconception that breasts reach their final form at the end of puberty, but in reality, breast development is an ongoing process that evolves throughout a person’s life. Dr. Cara Natterson and Vanessa Kroll Bennett, co-hosts of The Puberty Podcast, aptly describe breasts as never truly stopping their growth but rather continually changing.
We consulted experts to gain a better understanding of how breasts can change over time and the reasons behind these fluctuations.
How Do Breasts Change with Age? First and foremost, it’s essential to recognize that breast changes are a natural part of the aging process, according to Dr. Mindy Goldman, an ob-gyn and chief clinical officer at Midi Health. These changes, however, may be more prominent in some individuals than in others, with genetics playing a significant role. In general, hormonal fluctuations, particularly involving estrogen, tend to drive the most significant breast transformations.
Dr. Tommaso Addona, a plastic surgeon and president of New York Plastic Surgical Group, explains that breasts consist of three primary components: skin, fibroglandular tissue (comprising milk-producing lobes and ducts), and fat surrounding this tissue. Estrogen plays a pivotal role in stimulating the development of fibroglandular tissue, which, in turn, affects breast size and appearance.
Breast Changes Triggered by Hormonal Factors:
- Menstrual Cycles: Throughout the menstrual cycle, estrogen levels fluctuate as the body prepares for ovulation or potential pregnancy. These hormonal changes lead to the growth of milk ducts within the fibroglandular tissue, resulting in temporary breast swelling, lumpiness, or tenderness. If pregnancy doesn’t occur, breasts generally return to their normal size.
- Pregnancy and Breastfeeding: During pregnancy, rising estrogen levels prepare the breasts for breastfeeding, causing them to increase in size by a cup size or more. After breastfeeding ceases, milk-producing cells decrease, and breasts may “deflate.” However, some women experience lasting breast enlargement even after breastfeeding.
- Menopause: Menopause, marked by 12 months without a menstrual cycle (typically occurring around age 51), leads to significant breast changes. Estrogen levels drop, causing a reduction in fibroglandular tissue, which is replaced by increased fatty tissue. This shift can result in decreased breast density and sagging due to decreased elasticity in the supporting connective tissue.
- Weight Fluctuation: Weight gain or loss can impact breast size since breasts contain fatty tissue. While the precise impact of diet on breast tissue is not fully understood, maintaining a healthy weight through exercise and a balanced diet can positively affect breast composition and reduce cancer risks.
Breast Health and Cancer Risk: Although many breast changes are normal, some, such as lumps and unexplained skin changes, may indicate serious health issues. For instance, an orange peel-like appearance of breast tissue can signal inflammatory breast cancer. The risk of developing breast cancer increases with age, so regular screenings like mammograms are crucial for early detection.
Dr. Jacqueline Holt, medical director of women’s imaging for Delaware Imaging Network, emphasizes the importance of knowing your breasts’ normal appearance, feel, and shape. While self-awareness is essential, it should complement rather than replace mammograms for accuracy. Any unusual breast lumps should be promptly evaluated by a physician.
In conclusion, breasts are dynamic and continuously evolving throughout a person’s life. Hormones, genetics, and life events all contribute to these changes. While many breast transformations are part of a natural process, it’s essential to remain vigilant about breast health and seek medical attention for any concerning developments.