The Truth About Age and Fertility
Posted on Apr 24, 2014
We’ve all heard a story like this: A 40-something celebrity gets pregnant with twins. But these headlines may be giving false hope to women who wait until later in life to start a family. National Infertility Awareness Week in April, aims to increase knowledge about infertility and clarify some common misconceptions. Alexis Kim, M.D., a fertility expert from the Palo Alto Medical Foundation (PAMF), helps shed light on common myths about age and fertility.
Myth: A woman can easily get pregnant well into her 40s.
“This is one of the most common misconceptions about fertility: that a woman can easily get pregnant in her 40s,” Dr. Kim says. “The decline in a woman’s fertility starts to become more noticeable in her mid 30s or sometimes even earlier. By the time she is in her 40s, it is significantly harder for her to conceive.”
The statistics are eye-opening. According to Dr. Kim, a woman in her prime fertility (on average until about age 30) has about a 20-25 percent chance per month of getting pregnant and having a healthy baby. At age 35, that chance is reduced to 17 percent per month. By age 40, the monthly chance is only 9 percent. “That is quite a significant drop,” says Dr. Kim. “And the older you get, the more the decline in fertility accelerates.”
What many people don’t realize is the 44-year-old pregnant movie star who lit up the headlines may have used donor eggs, provided by a much younger woman.
Myth: The ability to conceive is just as likely to be affected by the man’s age.
When it comes to age, women wield more influence. “There is evidence that age affects male fertility, contributing to declining sperm quantity and quality, but the fertility decline that occurs in men may not be as noticeable or as profound as it is in women at the same age,” Dr. Kim says. “Men likely have a decline in sperm quality compared to when they were younger, but in many situations the sperm will still be in a range considered normal for fertility.”
Myth: If I eat well and stay in great shape, my age won’t affect my fertility.
“I hear this myth a lot,” Dr. Kim says. “Fertility is really about age and time, not whether you’ve been eating well and exercising.” It is always helpful to be healthy and in good shape, he says, but unfortunately that doesn’t stave off the effects of time on the quality and quantity of eggs.
Myth: There is little that can be done to help infertility issues.
The good news is that most people who struggle with infertility can be treated. “In some cases, we may have to broaden what people may consider ‘treatment.’ For example, in order to start a family, some people — due to age or other factors — may need to use donor eggs. And there also is adoption,” he says.
Depending on the condition, treatments that accelerate the process of conception are available. The success of these treatments depends on the individual.
In addition to age, other factors that can affect fertility in women are smoking – which accelerates the aging of ovaries and the decline of egg reserves, prior ovarian surgeries, severe endometriosis and a family history of early menopause.
Who should seek assistance? Anyone age 35 and older who has been trying to conceive for at least six months without success should get a basic fertility evaluation. “Treatment may not be needed,” Dr. Kim say, “but it would be helpful to know if there are any problems earlier rather than later.”
Alexis (Alex) Kim, M.D., is a fertility expert at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation Fertility Physicians of Northern California.