Fertility is an issue often tied to women’s health, but in a heterosexual couple, men are the other half of the conception equation. It’s often thought men can easily reproduce effectively throughout their entire lives; however, that’s only partly true. There are other factors that come into play when it comes to healthy sperm, and aging is one of them.
For a number of reasons, people are waiting until later in life to have children. A man’s age is tied to the quality of his sperm and has a “significant impact on reproduction,” according to a 2011 report.
“The idea that robust fertility for a man will continue well past a woman’s decline in fertility is untrue,” the report explains. “Beyond the fact that older men tend to have older female partners, increasing male age is associated with increased time to conception.” The report concludes that paternal age influences sexual function, sperm parameters, and fertility.
The Mayo Clinic outlines several potential risks that are elevated when conception occurs with sperm from a male that is over 40 years old, including: higher rates of miscarriage, rare birth defects, autism, schizophrenia, and a type of childhood leukemia.
Researchers believe this could be “due to random genetic mutations in sperm that occur more commonly in older men than in younger men,” the clinic explains.
The amount of sperm in semen (sperm count) in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand has declined by over 50% since the 1970s, according to a 2017 study. While the accuracy of this claim is still the subject of debate among doctors and scientists, many experts agree that male fertility is facing a crisis.
“The leading hypothesis is that there has been a vast increase in the number and volume of chemicals that have entered the environment during the last 50 years,” Jorge Chavarro, Associate Professor of Nutrition and Epidemiology at Harvard, told Vox.
Exposure to chemicals like BPA and phthalates (used in plastic to increase flexibility) can have lasting negative effects on male fertility. Older men are more at risk of being exposed to such “toxic agents,” one study says. Declining sperm count is also linked to lifestyle choices (drug and alcohol use), and obesity.
Between the ages of 40 and 45, there is an “increasing number of genetic mutations in sperm,” writes medical director of Create Fertility, Geeta Nargund.
“It can take five times as long to conceive where a woman has a male partner over 45,” she says, “and the risk of miscarriage is twice as high in women with male partners over 45 compared to those with partners under 25.”
Nargund is pushing to destigmatize male fertility issues. She says the more open we are about it, the better it will be for men trying to conceive.
“We must keep challenging (the) government and educators to also include information on fertility – female and male – in the curriculum,” she says. “We have to open up the conversation – provide information and normalize the topic as one that men can talk to each other about, devoid of embarrassment or shame.”