Incontinence, the inability to hold your bladder is an embarrassing problem, but it is also extremely common among elderly people. At least 1 in 10 people age 65 or older has incontinence problems. Symptoms range from mild leaking of urine to uncontrollable wetting.

What is Bladder Control?

The body stores urine in the bladder. During urination, muscles in the bladder contract or tighten. This forces urine out of the bladder and into a tube called the urethra that carries urine out of the body. At the same time, muscles surrounding the urethra relax and let the urine pass through. Spinal nerves control how these muscles move. Incontinence occurs if the bladder muscles contract or the muscles surrounding the urethra relax without warning. Strengthening these muscles can help alleviate some symptoms.

Incontinence can occur for many reasons. For example, urinary tract infections, vaginal infection or irritation, constipation, and certain medicines can cause bladder control problems that last a short time. Other problems include weak or overactive bladder muscles, blockage from an enlarged prostate, damage to nerves that control the bladder from diseases such as multiple sclerosis or Parkinson's disease, or diseases such as arthritis that can make walking painful and slow.

Why Does Incontinence Happen?

Although aging does not cause incontinence, it is more likely to occur in older people. Incontinence can occur for many reasons. Sometimes incontinence lasts longer. This might be due to problems such as:

  • Weak bladder muscles
  • Overactive bladder muscles
  • Blockage from an enlarged prostate
  • Damage to nerves that control the bladder from diseases such as multiple sclerosis or Parkinson's disease
  • Diseases such as arthritis that can make walking painful and slow

Diagnosing Incontinence

Many people with bladder control problems hide the problem from everyone, even from their doctor. There is no need to do that. In most cases, incontinence can be treated and controlled, if not cured. If your parent is having bladder control problems, they don't have to suffer in silence. Talk to your doctor about diagnosing incontinence.

The doctor will give your parent a physical exam and take their medical history. The doctor will ask about your elder's symptoms and the medicines he/she uses. The doctor will want to know if your elderly parent has been sick recently or had surgery.

Your doctor also may do a number of continence tests. These might include urine and blood tests and tests that measure how well your mom or dad empties the bladder. In addition, your doctor may ask you to keep a daily diary of when your parent urinates and when they leak urine. Their pattern of urinating and urine leakage may suggest which type of incontinence your elderly parent has.

To overcome the reluctance, help your elderly parent educate themselves on the condition, know that it's common as people grow older -- and assure them that doctors have seen it all before!