Male reproductive health is a common discussion among men trying to conceive.
When there is difficulty with fertility, doctors will generally consider the sperm quality of the man. While this is a common concern among men in their 20s and 30s, those who are older tend to experience other issues. One of these problems lies with the prostate gland.
Certain problems can affect the prostate gland, especially among older men. These problems are caused by physiological changes that occur in this gland.
In this post, we consider what the prostate is and what roles this small gland plays in the body. We also consider what changes happen to the prostate with age.
What Is The Prostate?
The prostate is a gland that is part of the endocrine system, which consists of multiple glands. This gland has a very small size. In young men, the size of the prostate gland is usually compared to that of a walnut.
The gland is a fibromuscular gland with a dense concentration of fibers. It has a shape that is similar to an inverted cone. A base is located in the upper region of the prostate.
The prostate gland is only found in the male body. It sits in the pelvis region, below the bladder. The base of the prostate gland is situated around the urethra. This is a thin tube that is connected to the bladder’s neck. The urethra runs through the penis and is used to expel both urine and semen from the body.
What Does The Prostate Do?
This gland has an important role to play in the reproductive system in men. The prostate fluid is created in this gland and secreted during sexual activities.
The prostate fluid has an alkaline balance. It serves as a protective substance for sperm, which is produced in the testicles. The sperm then moves toward the urethra. Prior to entering the urethra, it is mixed with the prostatic fluid.
The prostate fluid that combines with sperm to produce semen has a number of roles to play:
It should be noted that the production of prostate fluids is not the only function of this gland.
The prostate contains a set of muscles that can contract. This contraction of muscle tissue generally tends to happen when a man ejaculates. The muscles help to push sperm out of the urethra with force. This ensures sperm has a better chance of reaching the vagina and fertilizing an egg.
How Does The Prostate Change As You Get Older?
With age comes many changes in the human body – and the prostate gland is just one of the areas affected. Just as a man starts to experience visible wrinkles on his face when he ages, there are certain physiological changes that happen to the prostate gland, resulting in prostate disease.
The primary change in the prostate that develops with age relates to its size. At the age of 20, a man’s prostate has a small size – comparable to the size of a walnut. The prostate starts to grow in size year-after-year. This growth is generally very gradual. Due to the slow growth of the prostate gland, the man will usually not experience any obvious signs that their prostate is becoming bigger.
When the man reaches the age of 40, his prostate will be slightly bigger compared to two decades ago. At this age, the prostate’s size is usually comparable to an apricot. Two decades forward and the prostate grows to a size where it can be compared to a lemon.
This slight growth in size is generally considered relatively normal in the aging man. In some cases, however, it is possible for a man to develop a condition generally called an enlarged prostate. Just as the name suggests, this is when the prostate has become enlarged. The condition is also known as benign prostatic hyperplasia or BPH.
When a man develops benign prostatic hyperplasia, the prostate’s larger size tends to push against the urethra. We previously mentioned that the prostate gland sits just below the bladder. A part of the prostate gland also surrounds the urethra. During the earlier stages, the enlargement affects the part that encompasses the urethra.
The prostate may continue to grow in size over the years. This can eventually cause pressure against the neck of the patient’s bladder.
These changes tend to lead to the development of urinary symptoms. As the prostate pushes against the bladder, it can cause drops of urine to leak unexpectedly – and unintentionally. Some men find that the pressure makes it harder to completely empty their bladder when they urinate.
Apart from benign prostatic hyperplasia, changes to the prostate may also lead to other issues.
One publication explains that over 190,000 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer each year. These statistics make up for the American male population and does not even take the rest of the world into account. Among the cases of prostate cancer, at least 60% are found in men who are older than 65 years. It is also considered extremely rare for a man under the age of 40 to be diagnosed with prostate cancer.
This publication, along with several others, have provided evidence that age has a major role to play in the risk for prostate cancer.
Cancer occurs when cells located in the prostate gland experiences mutations in their DNA. These mutations cause cancer cells to start growing at a more rapid pace. Cells also divide more rapidly than they are supposed to. While normal cells regularly die to make way for new cells, the cells with mutated DNA remains active – continuing to divide and grow.
Eventually, this action leads to the development of a tumor in the prostate. This tumor contains cancerous cells. When prostate cancer develops, it is often localized to the prostate itself. In some rare cases, however, the cancerous cells spread. This can cause cancer to affect parts of the body other than the prostate too.
What Prostate Changes Should You Be Aware Of?
Some changes in the prostate gland are to be expected with age.
The aging man needs to ensure they know the importance of prostate checkups. Furthermore, understanding specific signs and symptoms to look for should become critical with older age. This can help a man identify the presence of a prostate condition at an earlier stage.
The earlier these conditions are diagnosed and treated; the less severe the complications tend to be. It is also usually significantly easier to treat prostate-related problems when the disease is still at an early developmental stage.
Regular Prostate Checkups
Before considering signs of common prostate conditions that can be recognized in the aging man, it is crucial for men to ensure they undergo regular checkups.
- DRE: A checkup for prostate health can be somewhat unpleasant. A digital rectal exam is usually required. This type of test helps the doctor feel the prostate. It provides an indication of any abnormalities that may be affecting the prostate gland. The examination consists of the doctor placing a single finger into the male patient’s rectum.
During this examination, the doctor will wear gloves. A lubrication agent is applied to the tops of the glove. This helps to reduce the discomfort that a man experiences during the rectal exam.
When a doctor identifies any type of abnormality, they may decide to take appropriate action. If a very small abnormality is felt, the patient may be advised to look out for symptoms. They will then be asked to come back for a follow up at a specified date. The doctor will redo the digital rectal exam on a frequent basis to monitor the abnormality. If changes are noted, further tests may be initiated.
In cases where the abnormality is concerning, the doctor will advise the patient to undergo certain imaging tests. These tests can help the doctor get a view of the enlarged prostate gland itself.
- Ultrasound: An ultrasound is a common option. A tiny probe is inserted into the rectum. A small device is connected to the tip of this probe. The device creates sound waves inside the rectum. As these sound waves are created, an image of the internal organs is produced on a screen. The doctor can see if there are abnormal grows on the prostate or if the size of the prostate is larger than it should be – while taking the patient’s age into account.
- MRI: MRI fusion is becoming a widely used application for testing men with prostate problems. This particular procedure is very useful in testing for prostate cancer. A prostate biopsy can be obtained with the use of an MRI fusion procedure.
- PSA test: A prostate specific antigen test may be requested by the patient’s healthcare provider. This test measures prostate-specific antigen in the patient’s body. When elevated levels of prostate-specific antigen, also referred to as PSA testing, are detected, it generally indicates a problem with the prostate gland.
There are several conditions that may cause PSA levels to rise. Some of these conditions include:
- Inflammation affecting the prostate gland, such as prostatitis.
- An infection in the prostate gland.
- An enlarged prostate gland, which is the case with benign prostatic hyperplasia.
- Prostate cancer.
Recognizing Symptoms Of Prostate Conditions
Men should not only wait for a digital rectal exam or a checkup at a doctor to be able to recognize the presence of prostate problems. It is important that men know what signs in their daily life could signal an issue with the prostate.
Since there are different conditions, the symptoms may differ. A few symptoms, such as urinary issues, are often shared among different conditions that affect the prostate gland.
Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia Symptoms
Benign prostatic hyperplasia causes the prostate to grow at a more rapid rate than what is considered normal. Some men experience only a mild case of BPH.
In this scenario, the symptoms may not be troublesome. In other men, Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia (BPH) causes a much more significant growth of the prostate gland. This can become problematic and even lead to more severe symptoms.
Common symptoms associated with benign prostatic hyperplasia include:
- Frequent urination and Nocturia – Typically, the bladder can store urine until it is convenient to use the toilet. However, the impact of BPH on the lower urinary tract increases the frequency of urination, affects the the flow of urine, especially at night (nocturia).
- Urgent need to urinate – Like frequent urination, the prostate pressing on the bladder reduces bladder control, increasing the urge to urinate.
- Urine flow – BPH can induce a weak urine stream and dribble at the end of urination. In some patients, it makes it difficult to empty the bladder, which may increase the risk of urinary tract infection.
- Urinary incontinence – BPH and other prostate conditions can reduce bladder control over time, leading sudden uncontrolled need for urination or leaking due to strain.
- Sexual complication – BPH symptoms cause psychological stress, which reduces sex drive and sexual satisfaction.
- Infection and kidney damage – Urinary retention due to BPH associated reduced urine flow increases the risk of infection.
Prostatitis is also a condition that can often cause early symptoms. This condition is generally associated with inflammation in the prostate. This causes prostate enlargement. Unlike BPH, in this particular scenario, inflammation is what triggers growth.
A bacterial infection is a common cause of prostatitis. In such a case, the prostate is affected by both an infection and inflammation. About 50% of men will experience prostatitis at least once during their lifespan.
The most common symptoms that may signal prostatitis in male patients include:
- Burning or pain during urination.
- Nausea, vomiting, and body aches.
- Inability to completely empty the bladder.
- Fever or chills.
- Groin or lower back pain.
- Repeated urinary tract infection
- Sexual dysfunction and/or loss of libido
A sudden reduction in sexual performance should also be considered a concern in men. Prostatitis is known to cause a man to experience a reduction in their libido. This makes them less interested in sexual activities. Pain may also be experienced when the man ejaculates.
How To Protect Your Prostate
Even though a slightly increased size of the prostate is normal with age, it is important that men understand they can do their part to protect this gland. There are several lifestyle factors, as well as external elements that can affect the prostate.
Living an unhealthy lifestyle, in general, may put a man at a greater risk of prostate problems.
As an example, researchers have proven prostate problems, including benign prostatic hyperplasia, to be more prevalent among obese men. With this in mind, men who watch their weight may be less likely to experience more rapid growth in prostate size with age.
Other methods that can be used to assist in protecting the prostate gland include:
- Red meat consumption should be minimal. It is not necessary to completely cut out red meat. Simply eating less red meat may help to reduce the risk of certain prostate conditions.
- Dairy products are also known to cause a higher risk of prostate problems, especially at an older age.
- Fatty fish should form an important part of a man’s diet. Herring, tuna, sardines, and salmon are all great choices. The omega-3 fatty acids are known to promote a healthier prostate.
- Vegetables are also critical for men who wish to protect their prostate. Vegetables contain essential nutrients, such as minerals and vitamins, that help to reduce the risk of BPH, prostate cancer, and other related conditions.
- Exercising should also be considered important. It helps with the maintenance of a healthy weight. Exercise has also been shown to protect against cancer. This means a daily exercise routine could reduce the risk of prostate cancer.
The prostate gland is very small in size during young adulthood. With age, however, the prostate starts to grow slightly. Among some men, age comes with problems like benign prostatic hyperplasia. When the prostate gland grows more than what is considered “normal,” urinary symptoms, along with other complications, can develop. Protecting the prostate from a younger age helps to reduce the risk of such issues as the man grows older.