6 Tips for Healthy Breasts

When we think about breast health, cancer surveillance and mammograms often come to mind. But as important as those measures are, (see tip 5), there are lots of other ways to keep your breasts in good shape both inside and out.

We consulted with gynecologists and dermatologists to gather the six most important breast maintenance tips—from which creams have been proved to help preserve breast skin elasticity to what causes sagging (no, it's not breast-feeding) and a little-known consequence of breast augmentation you should know about.

1) Form and Function A body of research that goes back nearly 20 years has found a lower risk for breast and ovarian cancers among women who breast-feed their children. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that women try to breast-feed for the first 12 months of life because of the benefits for both the mother and baby. But doesn't nursing make breasts sag? Not according to a small 2007 study published by the University of Kentucky. The good news is that the study participants who breast-fed were no more likely to have lost elasticity in their breasts than those who didn't. The bad news is that the number of pregnancies a woman had did affect breast elasticity. Other factors that contributed to sagging were age and smoking. Study author and plastic surgeon Brian Rinker explained that the smoking connection was logical because "smoking breaks down a protein in the skin called elastin, which gives youthful skin its elastic appearance and supports the breast."

2) Implants? Not So Fast The list of possible complications related to breast augmentation surgery (with either silicone or saline implants) is long. Just take a look at the FDA consumer handbook on the subject. But the most ominous warning may be this: "Breast implants don't last a lifetime," advises the FDA. "You are likely to have the implants removed, with or without replacement, because of one or more complications over the course of your life." Those complications, the government says, include leaking implants and encapsulation, whereby a woman's immune system rebels against the implant and forms a capsule of hard collagen fibers around what it considers a foreign body. However, the most common issue for women with implants may be the normal aging process of a woman's body. Dr. Stephen B. Baker, a Georgetown University associate professor of plastic surgery, says he warns against breast augmentation for patients in their 20s. "You'll age but your implants won't," he says. "In 10 or 20 years, as your natural tissue loses elasticity, it can hang over the implant like Snoopy's nose. Then you need to get a bigger implant to fill out the skin, and you can only go so big. Or you'll have to get a breast lift." These factors obviously didn't deter the 329,000 women who had breast enlargement procedures in the United States in 2006, but if you're planning on joining them, make sure you've gotten all the latest information before you proceed. (See this NEWSWEEK article about new research on nonimplant breast augmentation and reconstruction. )

3) The Bounce Factor The most uncomfortable part of running may not be the burn in your legs. A 2007 study by researchers at the University of Portsmouth in England found that women experience an average bounce of about four inches. Some experienced more than double that amount, which, for some women, can interfere with jogging performance and unnecessarily stretch breast tissue. The experts' advice is to invest in a very supportive, well-fitting sports bra even if you think you're not big enough or old enough to need it. Your breasts will thank you someday. (You can find a large selection of sports bras here and a guide to bra fit here.)

4. The Firm Leslie Baumann, author of "The Skin Type Solution" and a dermatologist in Miami, says that while most breast-firming creams are useless, there are a few that can do the sensitive skin of your breasts some good. A retinoid cream, like Retin A (available with prescription) or Roc Correction (available over the counter) can be applied to the breast at night (be sure to avoid the nipple and areola). Baumann recommends applying Relastin face cream to the breasts in the morning, which has been shown to increase skin elasticity.

5. Keeping Watch Any Ob-Gyn will tell you that the most important regimen for healthy breasts is yearly mammograms. Carol Runowicz, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at University of Connecticut and past president of the American Cancer Society, recommends women begin with yearly mammograms at age 40. But according to a recent report by the National Cancer Institute, many women are not following that advice: Between 2000 and 2005 mammogram usage dropped roughly 7 percent among women between 50 and 64 and 4 percent among women over 65. (See this NEWSWEEK article to learn more about what to expect from your mammogram.)

6. The Big Picture Your breasts aren't an isolated system—they are affected by how well you treat the rest of your body. Runowicz notes that obesity is associated with an increased risk of postmenopausal breast cancer, so maintaining a healthy body weight is just as important for your breasts as it is for the rest of your figure. Exercising—with the correct sports bra, of course—can be one of the most important ways to keep your weight and breasts in check. It can even help protect you if you do get breast cancer, according to research from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. A 2006 study in the journal Cancer found that the level of exercise in the year prior to breast cancer diagnosis affects patients' ability to survive after a diagnosis. So a jog may be a good dose of preventive medicine after all.