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This Is How Your Breasts Are Changing (Without You Even Realizing It)
Your breasts are masters of the makeover, going from barely there to pert and perky; from full with milk to soft and sloping.
"The breast is an amazing organ," says Susan Love, MD, a clinical professor of surgery at UCLA and founder of the . "It's the only [organ] that you're not born with, and it changes along with the stages of your life—puberty, pregnancy, and then involution, perimenopause, and menopause."
Here's what's happening to your dynamic duo during each decade of your life.
In Your 20s
The girls are in top form now that puberty has stuffed them with fat fibrous tissue. "The abundance of connective tissue, combined with the overall strength of the suspensory ligaments, will make your breasts fairly dense," says gynecologist Kevin M. Audlin, MD, of Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. That could mean the start of "fibrocystic changes"—the cyclical swelling of lumpy, ropey connective tissue—especially in the upper outer areas of your breasts—that can cause pain and tenderness.
According to the Mayo Clinic, at this age you may also develop fibroadenomas—benign muscle tumors of the breast that can feel like marbles under your skin. (They're easily movable when you press on them.) Painless and varying in size, they can grow or shrink on their own. It's normal for breasts to have lumps and bumps, especially at this age. But if you detect a new lump or a lump you've had seems to be growing, see your gynecologist to have it checked out.
MORE:10 Things Your Breasts Say About You
In Your 30s
Got a bun in the oven? Your breasts may grow by up to three cup sizes (hello, stretch marks), your areolas may darken, and your nipples may become more prominent.
Pregnancy is a time your breasts do their most important work, revving up for milk production. "The ducts develop into branches and lobules, where milk is ultimately made, sort of like branches of a tree with buds and leaves hanging off the ends in spring," Love explains.
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Once your baby is born, your breasts convert blood into milk that contains not just protein, carbohydrates, and fat, but also antibodies, good bacteria, and immune cells for your baby. When you wrap up breastfeeding, the factory closes down, cleaning up the ducts and making new ones for your next pregnancy—a process called involution.
The darker areola color and more-protruding nipples may stick around. But alas, the volume does not. "Breasts shrink, the fullness is gone, there is laxity in the skin and less tension on the suspensory ligaments," Audlin explains.
MORE:5 Everyday Habits That Can Make Your Breasts Sag
In Your 40s
If you're still making babies, see the above section. Everyone else should consider investing in some push-up bras. "Gravitational forces, coupled with skin aging and loss of tissue collagen strength and elasticity, result in breast ptosis, or hanging of the breasts," explains New York City–based plastic surgeon Daniel Maman, MD.
During this decade, women commonly complain of lost fullness and perkiness, less skin elasticity, and stretch marks, Maman says. As your hormones begin to zigzag toward menopause, you might also notice random soreness and swelling like you had in your late teens and 20s, Love says. (Here are 6 more reasons your breasts are sore.)
This is also the age when genetic breast cancers begin to crop up, Audlin adds. "Fifty percent of all women who are first-degree relatives of a woman who had breast cancer will develop the disease," he says. "Nongenetic breast cancer is much less common during this decade."
Although gynecologists used to recommend annual mammograms for all women beginning at age 40, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force and the American College of Physicians now suggest that you discuss your risk factors with your doctor and make an informed decision about screening based on your family and medical history.
MORE:6 Foods Your Breasts Would Like You To Eat Every Day
In Your 50s
Unless you keep your cells artificially stimulated with hormone therapy, your breasts go into retirement with menopause, which typically occurs between ages 51 and 53. Your ovaries stop producing estrogen, which has been maintaining the glands and lobes that give your breasts their fullness and shape. "The lobules and glandular tissue regress, the connective tissue and the suspensory ligaments of the breast weaken, and fatty tissue becomes the main tissue of the breast," Audlin explains.
Besides becoming softer and droopier, breasts also become more susceptible to disease. "The menopausal state is the highest risk for breast cancer in women who don't have a genetic mutation issue," Audlin says. (Menopause making you nutty? Check out .)
MORE:5 Gravity-Fighting Moves For Your Chest
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends all women without a family history of breast cancer receive a mammogram every 2 years through age 74.
In the meantime, you can keep your breasts healthy with simple lifestyle measures, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research. Those include:
•Maintaining a healthy weight.Obesity raises your breast cancer risk.
•Get regular exercise.Four or more hours a week of moderate to vigorous activity lowers your breast cancer risk.
•Limit alcohol intake.Swallowing two or more alcoholic drinks a day raises your cancer risk.
Video: Pregnancy Tips : Is Breast Soreness a Pregnancy Symptom?
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