By Mark Trolice, M.D.
Women aren’t the only ones with a proverbial biological clock.
Despite many misconceptions and misperceptions, men are affected by infertility at almost the same rate as women. Not only that, as men age, their sperm is impacted—affecting the length of time it takes to get pregnant, the mother’s health during pregnancy, chances of miscarriage, and even health of the baby.
Only recently have any large-scale studies focused entirely on the impact of older fathers. One of the most recent and largest studies analyzed more than 40.5 million births at the Stanford University School of Medicine, concluding that “more than 12 percent of births to fathers aged 45 years or older with adverse outcomes might have been prevented were the fathers younger.”
The Stanford researchers also found that men over age 40-45:
· Take five times as long to impregnate their partner compared with men under 25;
· Are 14 percent more likely than men in their 20s and 30s to have children born prematurely with a low birth weight;
· As the fathers’ ages increased, their babies were more likely to need help with breathing and require neonatal intensive care;
· Have a higher chance of the mother getting gestational diabetes;
· Have a higher chance of the mother miscarrying, and;
· Have a higher chance of children being born with birth defects, autism and mental health disorders like bipolar and schizophrenia.
We are learning more and more about the impact of older fathers as the rate of births to men 40 and over continues to rise. Since the 1970s, the birth rate to men over 40 has doubled to about 9 percent as of 2015.
While women are born with their lifetime supply of eggs, men start making sperm at puberty and continue this for the rest of their lives. As women age, declining egg quantity and quality puts them at increasing risk for infertility, miscarriages and having children with health problems due to chromosomal abnormalities, such as Down’s syndrome.
While women are technically considered fertile until menopause, their monthly odds of pregnancy decline from 20 percent at age 30 to 5 percent at age 40…until it eventually hits zero. These same ages see a miscarriage rate rise from 10 percent to 33 percent and continue to rise with her age.
Because sperm production doesn’t end, it was long believed that men would remain fertile their entire lives, without age having a significant impact on length of time to conceive or the mother and child’s health.
Causes of Male Infertility
About 12 percent of women in the U.S. between the ages of 15 to 44 have difficulty getting pregnant or carrying a pregnancy to term, with the cause equally divided between men and women at about 40 percent. In about 33 percent of couples with infertility, both a male and female cause is found.
The most common causes of male infertility include abnormal sperm production, function or delivery. Other causes include overexposure to certain pesticides or chemicals; significant alcohol, tobacco or marijuana use, and; the use of particular medications like anabolic steroids, antihypertensives and some types of antibiotics. Additionally, radiation and chemotherapy treatments for cancer can cause infertility by significantly impairing sperm production.
Can Men Optimize Their Fertility?
There are ways for men to protect and maximize their fertility:
Body weight. Higher body weight is linked with decreasing both sperm count and motility.
Diet. Choose plenty of fruits and vegetables, which are rich in antioxidants, especially vitamin C, vitamin E and CoQ10, to improve sperm quantity and quality.
Manage stress. Stress can cause lower sperm function and sexual performance anxiety – think stage fright! If you are experiencing stress with difficulty conceiving – and who isn’t? – reach out to your partner and/or a counselor for health coping strategies and stress-reduction techniques.
Exercise. Moderate physical activity can have positive or neutral effects on sperm, but intensive exercise can reduce sperm function. So, remember there’s a sweet spot with exercise intensity.
Don’t smoke. Men who smoke cigarettes inhale passive smoke are more likely to have impaired sperm and higher rates of genetically damaged sperm.
Limit alcohol. While there is debate on alcohol’s effect on sperm, prolonged abuse can cause impotence.
Talk to your doctor about medications. Many medications impact fertility, including calcium channel blockers (reduce fertilization), testosterone and anabolic steroids.
Avoid exposure to toxins. Exposure to environmental toxins, especially phthalates (used in many plastics and hundreds of products) may reduce sperm function.
Stay cool. Increased temperature to the scrotum can impair sperm production. Wear loose-fitting underwear, avoid saunas and hot tubs and limit scrotum exposure to warm objects (such as laptops.)
About the Author
Mark P. Trolice, M.D., is a Board-certified OB/GYN and reproductive endocrinologist who founded and directs Fertility CARE-The IVF Center in Winter Park, Fla. He also is associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Central Florida College of Medicine in Orlando.