30 September 2014

Tick, tock...do men have a biological clock?

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Sims IVF

Dr Conor Harrity             

Billy Crystal once quipped that although Charlie Chaplin was able to father a child in his 80s, he was too old to pick them up.  While men do father children when they are older; age can also be an inhibiting factor and its important to know why.

The effect of age on a man’s fertility

It’s common knowledge that women’s fertility decreases with age, but recent studies have indicated that the biological clock is a reality for both sexes – although the decline is not as dramatic and finite for men. 

Women are born with all their eggs, so as they get older they’re left with fewer and fewer eggs – as well as a higher proportion of abnormal ones, until eventually a woman reaches menopause and produces no eggs at all.  

Men, however, completely replace their sperm every three months, and continue to do so throughout their life. So sperm don’t have a ‘use by’ date in quite the same way as a woman’s eggs do. But studies indicate that semen volume, morphology (shape) and motility (the way it moves) does decline as a man ages. 

One study showed that the odds of fatherhood for those under the age of 30 was 32%, compared with 20% over the age of 50. That’s almost a 40% drop in male fertility in just 20 years!

While a man can keep producing sperm throughout his life, those sperm won’t necessarily be the best quality as the body producing them is getting older - and less healthy. Age also increases the possibility of DNA damage in sperm as the body becomes less efficient at naturally controlling cells with DNA damage. If sperm with defective DNA go on to fertilise an egg, this may translate into complications in pregnancy and after birth.

What else affects sperm quality?

In addition to age, there are a number of other factors that can make conception a little more challenging, especially for older men:

  Sperm count has been shown to be reduced in general, because people are much mor sedentary than our forefathers.  Obesity, diabetes and unhealthy lifestyles or diet can impact the quality of sperm. Common unhealthy habits that effect fertility include smoking, use of recreational drugs, and excessive or binge alcohol consumption. This is why one of the best things men can do to protect their fertility is to eat well and make positive lifestyle changes if necessary.

An increased risk of being exposed to STD’s can affect a man’s fertility also – and some STD’s can go undetected. This is why as Fertility Specialists we recommend that both the female and the male partner have a general check up by their GP, which includes simple blood tests for infectious diseases, before they start trying for children. 

High levels of stress have also been shown to reduce the quality of sperm.  To alleviate normal work or family related stress, take weekend breaks, have a relaxing health spa treatment or just arrange a time when you can chill out.  Additionally, men produce less testosterone as they age – and this can also affect the quality of sperm, as well as sex drive. In general, older men have slower-swimming sperm, and the shape (morphology) of the sperm may also decline with age.

To all Dads – present and future

While it’s clear that the metaphorical ticking biological clock doesn’t have the same rapid impact on men as it does for women, the chances of conceiving, and of having a healthy baby, are better when both parents are younger. 

If you want to have a family one day or extend the family you already have, it’s important to keep in mind the effects that age has on both you and your partner, especially as the female partner approaches her late 30s.

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