MONTCLAIR, NJ - As you age, your breasts change—and so do the best ways to keep them well.

Aging, hormones, pregnancy, menopause, and stress keep breast tissue in a constant state of flux. Understanding these changes helps you know what to expect and how to identify any potential issues as early as possible.

In Your 20s and 30s

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A long life of breast health starts early. Breast tissue is typically firm and often lumpy during your 20s and 30s. Breast pain and benign cysts and lumps are common breast health concerns for women at this age. Breast cancer is not—just 5 percent of all cases occur before age 40.

 “Starting in their early 20s, women should develop an awareness of how their breasts look and feel,” says Jan Huston, MD, FACS, medical director of the Breast Center at HackensackUMC Mountainside. Build a baseline with monthly breast self exams and annual clinical breast exams during your 20s and 30s to help you spot any changes in the future.”

During your monthly breast self-exam, check each breast and the surrounding tissue for dimpling, changes in the skin, discharge, lumps, thickening, or other changes. If you find any, discuss them with your doctor.

Over the course of pregnancy, it is normal for breasts to swell, become tender, darken, and have discharge. Continue regular breast exams and keep your doctor informed about any changes, especially if they occur in just one breast.

In Your 40s

Breast tissue becomes more fatty after 40, meaning the shape and feel of breasts may begin to change. It is important to continue performing monthly breast self-exams and receiving annual clinical breast exams. Your doctor may recommend a breast MRI if you meet certain risk factors, such as having a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation or a family history of breast cancer.

“Mammography is the most effective tool we have to identify breast cancer,” Dr. Huston says. “Women age 40 and older should receive a mammogram each year since breast tissue is less dense and easier to image. Routine annual screening gives us the best chance of spotting any potential issues early when they are easiest to treat.”

Similar to younger women, women in their 40s may experience lumpiness related to fibrocystic changes and breast pain. Cysts are fluid-filled sacks that are not dangerous but may cause discomfort. Your doctor may recommend screening with an ultrasound to diagnose fibrocystic breasts.

In Your 50s, 60s, and Beyond

After menopause, breast tissue becomes mostly fat which may cause changes in the consistency and look of your breasts. Your risk of developing breast cancer increases with age. One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during the course of her life.

Continue performing monthly breast self-exams, seeing your doctor for an annual clinical breast exam and, most importantly, have an annual mammogram for as long as your doctor recommends it. The five-year survival rate for breast cancers identified in the earliest stages—one or zero—is 100 percent.

To schedule a breast health visit at the HackensackUMC Mountainside Breast Center, call 973-429-6120 or visit http://www.mountainsidehosp.com.