Incontinence can have a substantial impact on wellbeing, social and workforce participation, and the relationships between those affected and their carers, a new report has shown.

The report, Incontinence in Australia, released this week by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), shows that 316,500 people (1.5 per cent of the population) experienced severe incontinence in 2008-09, at an estimated cost of $1.6 billion.

“Severe incontinence refers to instances where people always or sometimes need help with controlling bladder or bowel functions and/or using continence aids,” AIHW spokeswoman Dr Pamela Kinnear said.

Milder forms of incontinence were harder to define and quantify, she said.

“Severe incontinence can profoundly affect the quality of life of those who experience it,” Dr Kinnear said.

The AIHW report also found that incontinence is more common among older people, with nearly 25 per cent of people aged 85 and over experiencing severe incontinence.

Seven per cent of people aged 65, and 0.6 per cent of people aged less than 65, experience severe incontinence. It is twice as prevalent in females.

The labour force participation rate for people aged 15 to 64 affected by severe incontinence was about 26 per cent compared with 56 per cent of people unaffected.

More than half (52 per cent ) of people with severe incontinence reported not being able to go out as often as they would like, and about three per cent reported they could not go out at all.

This report also provides information on their carers; in 2009 there were 72,900 primary carers who helped manage people with severe incontinence. Most carers were female (81 per cent) and most spent 40 or more hours per week caring (73 per cent). Their sleep was interrupted more often (42 per cent) than other primary carers (19 per cent).

“Primary carers who assist people with severe incontinence are more likely to report strained relationships with those they care for, to need more respite care, and to report lower labour force participation,” Dr Kinnear said.

Continence Foundation of Australia chief executive Barry Cahill said the report highlighted the widespread impact incontinence could have on the community.

“While the report’s focus is primarily on people who have severe incontinence, we know that the financial, social and health effects of incontinence are felt by everyone experiencing bladder and bowel control problems, and the wider community,” Mr Cahill said.

“The Continence Foundation welcomes any research that highlights the widespread burden of disease and identifies incontinence as one of the country’s biggest health concerns.”

The AIHW is a major national agency set up by the Australian Government to provide reliable, regular and relevant information and statistics on Australia's health and welfare.

Full publication: Incontinence in Australia