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Home Health Care Resources

Incontinence is often associated with aging. A 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services noted that among non-institutionalized adults age 65 and up, almost 40 percent of men and more than 60 percent of women reported issues with bladder or bowel control. The report detailed the financial impact on sufferers, as well as the “emotional burden of shame and embarrassment in addition to the physical discomfort and disruption of their lives that occur with episodes of incontinence.”

It's important to understand, however, that incontinence is not a normal part of aging or uncommon among younger people. In a 2012 survey of women under 30, more than 12 percent reported that they'd experienced urinary incontinence. The researchers found no link between incontinence in these women and their age, body mass index, physical activity, or past urinary tract infections.

At least 25 million people of all ages deal with urinary or fecal incontinence, according to the National Association for Continence. The vast majority — about 80 percent — could be treated successfully, but only about one in 12 sufferers seeks help. The NAFC recommends offers a private message board for those who have questions but still haven't sought medical advice.

In 2002, USA TODAY founder and publisher Al Neuharth revealed in his column that he wore adult diapers due to incontinence. In 2014, Sheryl Underwood, co-host of TV show The Talk, admitted in a commercial for an adult-undergarment brand that she experiences bladder leakage. Such admissions by public figures have been few and far between, despite the widespread and growing prevalence of incontinence.

“Incontinence is one of the last medical taboos that we have not yet managed to eradicate anywhere in the world,” according to the World Federation of Incontinence Patients (WFIP). “It is a secret that we cannot tell anyone about, not even our own [doctor], partner or friends.”

Awareness and acceptance will take time. But efforts to provide better adult undergarments are well under way. The market for superabsorbent polymers — used to make the fabric inside undergarments — was estimated at more than $6 billion in 2013, and is expected to grow by almost 50 percent by 2020, according to industry sources. Competition in this growing market is already fueling innovations.

Incontinence is just one of the challenges in caring for someone with Alzheimer’s, but its impact is significant. When low-quality or poorly designed undergarments fail to keep the patient dry at night, the effects of lost sleep can carry into the next day. The time spent on cleaning bed linens and calming a tired, agitated patient is better spent on other activities.

Among healthy adults as well, incontinence is much more than an inconvenience — even if the topic remains taboo. An estimated 25 million Americans experience transient or chronic urinary incontinence, according to the National Association for Continence, but only about one in eight has been diagnosed. Men are less likely than women to discuss the issue with a doctor, but even women wait an average of six and a half years from the first incident to seeking medical advice. A 2012 study found that the rate of fecal incontinence among non-institutionalized adults is on the rise, and is likely to be “a major public health problem in the near future.”

Fortunately, the growing demand for incontinence products is fueling advances in nonwoven fabrics that are better able to pull moisture away from the skin without leaking. This not only makes it more comfortable for the person wearing the garment but helps to guard against skin irritation and breakdown caused by urine resting on the skin.  Quality matters, and the leading manufacturers gain customer loyalty by offering the most effective products.