As people age, a number of changes happen throughout the genitourinary tract Overview of the Urinary Tract Normally, a person has two kidneys. The rest of the urinary tract consists of the following: Two ureters (the tubes connecting each kidney to the bladder) The bladder (an expandable muscular... read more .
As people age, there is a slow, steady decline in the weight of the kidneys Kidneys The kidneys are bean-shaped organs that figure prominently in the urinary tract. Each is about 4 to 5 inches (12 centimeters) long and weighs about one third of a pound (150 grams). One lies... read more . After about age 30 to 40, about two thirds of people (even those who do not have kidney disease) undergo a gradual decline in the rate at which their kidneys filter blood. However, the rate does not change in the remaining one third of older people, which suggests that factors other than age may affect kidney function.
As people age, the arteries supplying the kidneys narrow. Because the narrowed arteries may no longer supply enough blood for normal-sized kidneys, kidney size may decrease. Also, the walls of the small arteries that flow into the glomeruli Introduction to Disorders of Kidney Tubules The kidneys filter and cleanse the blood. They also maintain the body’s balance of water, electrolytes (such as sodium, potassium, bicarbonate, and chloride), and nutrients in the blood. The... read more thicken, which decreases the function of the remaining glomeruli. Accompanying these losses is a decline in the ability of the nephrons to excrete waste products and many drugs and an inability to concentrate or dilute urine and to excrete acid.
Despite age-related changes, however, sufficient kidney function is preserved to meet the needs of the body. Changes that occur with age do not in and of themselves cause disease, but the changes do reduce the amount of reserve kidney function that is available. In other words, both kidneys may need to work at nearly their full capacity to carry out all the normal kidney functions. Thus, even minor damage to one or both of the kidneys may result in a loss of kidney function.
The ureters Ureters The ureters are muscular tubes—about 16 inches (40 centimeters) long—that attach at their upper end to the kidneys and at their lower end to the bladder. (See also Overview of the Urinary Tract... read more do not change much with age, but the bladder and the urethra do undergo some changes. The maximum volume of urine that the bladder can hold decreases. A person's ability to delay urination after first sensing a need to urinate also declines. The rate of urine flow out of the bladder and into the urethra slows.
Throughout life, sporadic contractions of bladder wall muscles occur separately from any need or appropriate opportunity to urinate. In younger people, most of these contractions are blocked by spinal cord and brain controls, but the number of sporadic contractions that are not blocked rises with age, resulting sometimes in episodes of urinary incontinence. The amount of urine that remains in the bladder after urination is completed (residual urine) increases. As a result, people may have to urinate more frequently and have a higher risk of urinary tract infections.
In women, the urethra Urethra The urethra is a tube that drains urine from the bladder out of the body. In men, the urethra is about 8 inches (20 centimeters) long, ending at the tip of the penis. In women, the urethra is... read more shortens and its lining becomes thinner. These changes in the urethra decrease the ability of the urinary sphincter to close tightly, increasing the risk of urinary incontinence Urinary Incontinence in Adults Urinary incontinence is involuntary loss of urine. Incontinence can occur in both men and women at any age, but it is more common among women and older people, affecting about 30% of older women... read more . The trigger for these changes in a woman's urethra seems to be a declining level of estrogen during menopause Menopause Menopause is the permanent end of menstrual periods and thus of fertility. For up to several years before and just after menopause, estrogen levels fluctuate widely, periods become irregular... read more .
In men, the prostate gland Structure of the Male Reproductive System The male reproductive system includes the penis, scrotum, testes, epididymis, vas deferens, prostate, and seminal vesicles. The penis and the urethra are part of the urinary and reproductive... read more tends to enlarge with aging, gradually blocking the flow of urine (see Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia (BPH) Benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) is a noncancerous (benign) enlargement of the prostate gland that can make urination difficult. The prostate gland enlarges as men age. Men may have difficulty... read more ). If untreated, blockage may become nearly complete or complete, causing urinary retention and possibly kidney damage.