Ask the Expert: How can you protect the health of your prostate? | Lifestyles

What are the most important steps you can take to protect the health of your prostate?

When it comes to protecting your prostate health, one of the first things to know is your anatomy. The prostate is a walnut-sized gland found only in the male reproductive system. It sits within the pelvis, below the bladder and in front of the rectum. The tube that carries urine (the urethra) runs through the center of the prostate. The prostate helps make semen, which protects and nourishes sperm. For most men, the prostate enlarges with age, and this sometimes causes health issues.

The most common prostate health risk is not cancer and is related to this gland enlargement, called benign prostatic hyperplasia, or BPH. As the prostate grows, it crowds the urethra and may result in a weak urinary stream or waking up frequently at night to urinate. A diagnosis of an enlarged prostate comes from a healthcare provider performing a physical exam and reviewing a man’s urinary symptoms. These symptoms can often be addressed with the use of prescription medications or minor surgical procedures.

Not all prostate changes are benign, so you can protect your prostate health by knowing your risks for prostate cancer. Prostate cancer is the second-most-common cancer among men in the United States. About 1 in 9 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during their lifetime.

Prostate cancer may be diagnosed based on a physical exam of the prostate together with a PSA (prostate-specific antigen) blood test. The American Urological Association recommends that men between ages 55 and 69 talk with their doctors about whether to undergo a PSA test. Earlier testing may be recommended in men at high risk (for instance, a family history of prostate cancer in a man’s father or brother). African-American men are also at higher risk, with approximately 1 in 6 being diagnosed with prostate cancer.

In its early stages, prostate cancer typically causes no symptoms. Screening can allow for early detection, when treatments may be most effective, and identify aggressive cancers before they spread. Thankfully, there is a low risk of death due to prostate cancer, and many detected cancers are slow growing.

Finally, you can protect your prostate health with good choices in your diet, exercise habits and regular preventative healthcare visits. The Urology Care Foundation recommends that eating a diet low in animal fat and high in fruits and vegetables may help decrease a man’s risks of prostate cancer. Just as exercising regularly, losing weight and quitting smoking are heart-healthy choices, these may benefit your prostate health as well.

Dr. Ryan Smith is a urologist at the University of Virginia Health System.