The prostate is a walnut-sized gland in men located below the bladder, in front of the rectum, and around the urethra, which is the tube that carries urine and semen through the penis and out through the body. The main function of the prostate is to create a fluid that nourishes and protects sperm. Together with sperm, this fluid is expelled during ejaculation through the urethra in the form of semen.
The size of the prostate changes due to body growth and hormonal alterations. In adolescence, the size of the gland experiences a major increase, but it tends to remain the same during adulthood. As men get older, they are susceptible to diseases of the prostate such as prostate cancer. These diseases can cause problems both in the urinary and reproductive systems.
There are many factors that impact prostate health, with age the most important. Men are advised to have regular physical examinations of the gland. There are four exams that are common to evaluate the health of the prostate. The first of them is a digital rectal examination (DRE), during which the physician inserts a lubricated, gloved finger into the rectum to feel the prostate. The physician may identify an enlarged prostate or abnormal lumps or nodules, which may indicate prostate cancer, or tenderness that is consistent with prostatitis.
The second type of examination is a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood test, which measures the amount of a protein produced by the prostate. In healthy patients, the PSA is low, while high levels of PSA are indicators of prostate cancer.
A prostate ultrasound or transrectal ultrasound consists of inserting an ultrasound probe into the rectum to analyze the gland. An ultrasound is often combined with a prostate biopsy, during which the physician inserts a needle into the prostate to collect tissue to be analyzed.
Despite the attention given to the prostate, nearly all men start to develop a prostate disease as they age. However, it doesn’t mean that everyone experiences symptoms or is even diagnosed.
The three main diseases of the prostate are prostatitis, an enlarged prostate, and prostate cancer. Prostatitis is an inflammation of the prostate that can be caused by an infection and in most cases is treatable with antibiotics. An enlarged prostate or benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH) consists of an abnormal growth of the prostate associated with the aging process, and it can cause discomfort, which is why it is treated with medication and surgery.
Prostate cancer “is the most common cancer in men in the United States, after skin cancer,” according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It is the second leading cause of death from cancer in men.
The NIH says prostate cancer occurs more often in African-American men than in Caucasians, and African-American men are more likely to die from the disease than white men.
“Prostate cancer usually grows very slowly. Most men with prostate cancer are older than 65 years and do not die from the disease. Finding and treating prostate cancer before symptoms occur may not improve health or help you live longer,” the NIH says.
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