Many women in the study who had faecal incontinence (FI) also had another medical condition, such as major depression or diabetes, and often experienced urinary incontinence in addition to FI.

"Increased attention should be paid to this debilitating condition, especially considering the aging of our population and the available treatments for FI," says senior author Dee E. Fenner, M.D., associate professor of obstetrics and gynaecology, and director of gynaecology, at the University of Michigan Medical School.

The study was a postal survey of 6,000 women aged 30 to 90 who were enrolled in a large HMO in Washington state (the condition also affects men, but only women were involved in the study). Of the 64 percent who responded, the prevalence of FI was found to be 7.2 percent, with the occurrence increasing notably with age. FI was defined as loss of liquid or solid stool at least monthly.

The study was the first, to the authors' knowledge, to examine major depression as a potential risk factor for FI. They say FI could be a contributing factor to major depression in some cases, and major depression could be a contributing factor to FI in other cases.

Because of the nature of the condition, people who have FI often do not discuss it with their doctors, experts say. That is why the study's authors encourage clinicians to take a more active role in finding out if their patients are experiencing FI, especially among patients age 50 or older. They note that while FI is present in many elderly women, it should not be considered merely a normal part of aging.

Treatments that can help people manage FI can range from changes in diet and exercise, to medications that improve the formation of stools, to surgery that repairs the sphincter muscles.; Source: University of Michigan Health System