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Age and Fertility: What to Know

It’s no secret that fertility decreases with age for both women and men. There are changes that take place in our bodies that affect our ability to reproduce as we grow older. Now, there are many factors at play for men and women around fertility, and there are some common myths and points of misinformation involving this topic. We want to set the record straight and provide you with the accurate information you need so that you can make educated choices when it comes to reproduction and timing.

The Current State of Infertility

Infertility is on the rise, but much of this has to do with the fact that, in recent years, couples are choosing to have children later in life. According to studies on fertility, approximately 10% of couples in the United States are defined as infertile based on the inability to conceive after 12 months of unprotected sex. However, many of these couples have chosen to try to conceive in their 30s because of their professions and dedication to their careers. The concern with this trend is that it reveals a lack of fertility education.

Since the 80s, the birth rate in women over the age of 35 has increased by nearly 60%. While it was more common before the 80s to have children during a woman’s earlier years, much of that had to do with culture. Cultural norms have changed and more women are in the workforce than ever, and many of those women are choosing to wait to conceive until later in life. But at what cost?

If you want to have a baby in the future, it’s important to understand how fertility works and to nail down a reproductive life plan with your OBGYN. Read on to learn more.

How Age Affects Fertility in Women and Men

A woman’s peak reproductive age is her late teen years into her late 20s, with 1 in 4 women getting pregnant in any single menstrual cycle. Around the age of 30, even in prime health, her fertility starts to decline and she starts becoming less able to reproduce. During her mid-30s, her fertility declines much more rapidly, and she will have between a 10-20% chance of getting pregnant each time she tries. A woman around the age of 40 has about a 1 in 10 chance of getting pregnant in any single menstrual cycle. By the age of 45, the chance of a woman getting pregnant naturally is highly unlikely.

It’s commonly believed that a man’s fertility far outlasts a woman’s. Although a woman is limited by her number of eggs, a man’s chance at infertility increases with age. His semen quality diminishes with age, and studies show increasing rates of DNA fragmentation in sperm. There have also been associations seen between the age of a man and the incidences of birth defects and chromosomal abnormalities. Men under the age of 40 are far more likely to have success at fathering a child than men over the age of 40.

For a couple in their 20s, it can take an average of five months for them to get pregnant. For a woman in her 20s with a partner in his 40s, it can take over two years before they get pregnant.

Why Women Become Less Fertile as They Age

A woman is born with a certain number of eggs, and as she ages, those eggs diminish in number and viability. Every month, a woman loses about 1,000 (immature) eggs, and with each period, one egg that had developed during ovulation is released during her menstrual cycle because it wasn’t fertilized during ovulation. Older women have fewer eggs, but they also run the risk of having eggs with a higher likelihood of abnormal chromosomes. Older women also have a higher risk of disorders that can affect their fertility.

Childbearing in Later Years

Women who get pregnant in their late 30s or later in life have a higher risk of complications in pregnancy and childbirth, with some of these possibly affecting a woman’s health or the health of the baby. Women over the age of 40 specifically have an increased risk of preeclampsia (a pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure and signs of damage to organs), gestational diabetes, placental abruption, and placenta previa.

As women age, health problems can also naturally arise, and preexisting health problems tend to affect a woman’s fertility or lead to complicated or high-risk pregnancies. The risk of miscarriage and stillbirth is much higher in women over the age of 35, as is the chance of multiple pregnancies. As a woman’s ovaries age, she has a higher chance of releasing more than one egg each month (i.e. she may have twins or triplets).

Birth Defect Likelihood Increases with Age

Overall, the risk of having a baby with a chromosome abnormality is small, but that risk increases with a woman’s age. Having a baby with missing, damaged, or extra chromosomes increases with age, which Down syndrome being the most common to occur with later childbearing.

Here are the likelihoods of having a baby with Down syndrome as a woman ages:

  • 1 in 1,480 babies have Down syndrome if the mother is pregnant during her 20s
  • 1 in 940 babies have Down syndrome if the mother is pregnant around age 30
  • 1 in 353 babies have Down syndrome if the mother is pregnant around age 35
  • 1 in 85 babies have Down syndrome if the mother is pregnant around age 40
  • 1 in 35 babies have Down syndrome if the mother is pregnant around age 45

Prenatal screening and diagnostic tests can assess whether a baby is at risk of having a specific birth defect or genetic disorder. If this is a concern for you, our healthcare professionals can make sure you receive these so you can make informed decisions.

Ensuring Fertility

Unfortunately, there isn’t currently a medical technique that can help preserve your fertility for when you are ready to conceive. If you would like to have children later in life, you can always consider in vitro fertilization (IVF). IVF is when sperm is combined with a woman’s (maybe your own) eggs in a lab, fertilized to produce an embryo, and then transferred to a woman’s uterus to try to get pregnant. IVF can be a good option for women who no longer have viable eggs of their own or have frozen their eggs. However, the chances of conceiving with IVF decrease with age just as the chances of natural conception do. If you’d like to consider IVF, talk with one of our fertility specialists to understand your chances of success with IVF.

Establishing a Reproductive Life Plan

All women should take the time to decide whether or not they would like to have children and when they would like to have children. However, these decisions shouldn’t be based solely on preferences, but also on your health and the ability of your body to conceive. Your OBGYN can help you establish this plan based on your individual needs and health. It’s helpful to talk about this plan once a year at your annual appointment.

Need to schedule an appointment to talk through your reproductive life plan or overall fertility concerns or questions? Contact us at the location nearest you!