In 2002 a groundbreaking study of nuns shattered the myth that occasional urinary incontinence or loss of bladder control was the result of pregnancy or childbirth. The study looked at nuns who had never given birth and found that these nuns had the same rate of occasional incontinence or loss of bladder control as women in the general population who had given birth.
The same researchers, from the University of Rochester, New York, were excited to dig deeper into the connection not only between occasional incontinence and childbirth, but also genetic factors. They looked at the incidence rates of occasional incontinence once again at the nuns and the same nuns’ married sisters with childbirth. Three years later they released the results of the follow-up study which once again showed that the incidence rate of occasional urinary incontinence between these two groups of women was very similar – again, ruling out pregnancy and/or childbirth as the cause.
As the study evolved, it expanded to also include other sister groups of post-menopausal women: one who had given birth vaginally and one who had not. The conclusion remained the same; there was no increase in incidence risk for occasional urinary incontinence of any kind among the women who had given birth vs. their sister who had not.
Genetic Factors May Contribute to Occasional Incontinence and Loss of Bladder Control
In the follow up study, the researchers analyzed a total of 143 pairs of sisters. They found something very interesting. “Out of every three sister pairs, two had the same status: either both leaked urine, or neither leaked urine,” urogynecologist Gunhilde M. Buchsbaum, MD, the leading investigator of both this and the original nun study, says. “That’s more than you would see by chance.” Genetics clearly plays a role here.
The Pelvic Floor of Each Woman Is Different
Even more interesting was the fact that when there was a divide and one sister had occasional incontinence and the other hadn’t, the researchers were unable to correlate any higher risk between the sister that had given birth and the sister who hadn’t.
While the genetic predisposition may be inherited, every woman’s internal structure is different and may still be influenced by a variety of factors including weight, age, history of urinary tract infections, lifestyle, activity, sexual activity and more.
One researcher Niall Galloway, MD, medical director of the Emory Continence Center at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, put it this way: “The pelvic floor of one woman is different from another… life is not fair. Some women are going to be able to produce multiple children by vaginal delivery and never have a moment’s setback. Others are going to have a single child, and their pelvic floor will be damaged forever.”
As for the causes of occasional incontinence in women, childbirth seems to not be a major culprit, and other factors may play a much larger role, such as genetics, and an individual’s unique situation. Further studies may help to shed more light on how these factors actually influence women’s risk with occasional incontinence or not. The lesson here is to go beyond the “obvious” answers like “you are incontinent because you had so many children.” Dig deeper. Take charge of your own bladder health.
As a defensive measure, try to strengthen your bladder muscles via proper exercises such as Kegel, Yoga, Pilates, and nutritional support such as Vitamin D, BetterWOMAN, or BetterMAN. Healthy, strong bladder muscle may help to manage bladder control loss and occasional incontinence. Always discuss dietary supplement use with your physician first.
To your health.