Why it’s getting harder to naturally conceive a child

Published: Jul. 8, 2021 at 10:07 AM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Throughout human history, having a child was the natural next step after marriage. So natural, in fact, that nursery rhymes are sung about love and marriage and baby carriages.

But for some, bearing a child naturally is difficult if not impossible. Many infertile couples share this personal trial in secret, feeling shame or embarrassment that what is easy for seemingly so many is not so easy for them.

Society arguably shames women more when children do not come quickly, but what many do not know is that 30 percent of the time, it is the man’s fault when a couple can not get pregnant.

Research indicates that nearly 7 percent of all men are affected by infertility, but according to a recent study - that number could be going up.

In the study, epidemiologist Shanna Swan and others reportedly found that sperm counts in Western men have fallen by nearly 60 percent over the course of 40 years. One news outlet said that this finding “could threaten the human race.”

But is this supposed threat to the human race accurate?

Dr. Aldo Esterhuizen with Mississippi Reproductive Medicine said that we first have to discuss what infertility really is. According to the Mayo Clinic, 10-to-15 percent of couples in the United States are infertile.

As Esterhuizen explained, this means that the couple has been actively trying to get pregnant for over a year to no success. Thankfully, younger couples are more aware of infertility and have begun seeking help more quickly than in years past.

“We do see more patients in the 34 group and younger, I think, than we did before,” Esterhuizen said. “Because, traditionally, it was the older patient.”

Esterhuizen, who hails from South Africa, received her Ph.D. in male infertility because, according to her, a lot was being researched about infertility in women but not nearly as much for infertility in men, who she said plays an equally important role in getting pregnant.

“It’s not all Eve’s problem,” she said. “Adam’s got a part to play.”

According to Esterhuizen, sperm counts in men have fallen. This she blamed on a multitude of different factors, most notably: lifestyle.

“Lifestyle is a big thing to me,” she confessed. “I think, especially here in Mississippi, even the young people are so obese. Really, it has an effect. In males, the higher the BMI the lower the count in even the motility [of the sperm].”

A Harvard study found that overweight men are 11 percent more likely to have a low sperm count and 39 percent more likely to have no sperm at all.

When asked if there had been a moment in the past where she had noticed men having less sperm, Esterhuizen recalled a specific week where she saw three men with either no motile sperm at all or just a few.

“This is kinda strange because we very seldomly see, in the past, guys with no sperm count or with really just a few motile sperm...” she said.

What this meant though, she did not know. It might have just been a coincidence. The men’s genetics might have also played a role, or it may have been a hormonal problem. But what she does think is that it is becoming more difficult to conceive a child naturally.

This due, in part, to the modern lifestyle and diet. She said it’s like throwing a pebble into a pond.

“You got this ripple affect that gets bigger, and bigger, and bigger. It’s not just one little thing. You eat unhealthy, you become obese, you got Type 2 diabetes and it goes on and on.”

But is this falling sperm count in men something we should be worried about?

Dr. Avinash Gulanikar at the Urology Associates of Mississippi noted that while sperm counts have definitely decreased throughout the years, stating that “there has clearly been, over the last 30 to 50 years, a drop in semen counts overall,” he wouldn’t define it as a real threat.

As for what’s causing this drop, he too could only speculate. But he could list some common reasons for male infertility.

According to Gulanikar, 15 percent of men are born with a varicocele, which are enlarged veins around the testicle. Forty percent of men who have a varicocele, which often comes with no symptoms, have a low sperm count.

Obesity, he said, is also to blame as well as marijuana consumption, which has been shown to reduce sperm motility.

In an interesting twist, Gulanikar is not seeing more and more young men struggling with low sperm counts. It’s the opposite. This because many couples are waiting until later in life to start a family, and once the couple starts trying, they run into a problem.

He, like Dr. Esterhuizen, also thinks it’s harder for a woman to get pregnant today compared to, say, 20 years ago. And, in some ways, social media is to blame.

“Everyone likes to put their pretty pictures on Facebook and Instagram. ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ When someone doesn’t have that, they feel inadequate. Someone is going through infertility and all their friends are posting baby pictures, it can be very emotionally depressing, right?” Gulanikar asked.

Another factor is stress with one study by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health finding that psychological stress harms sperm quality and affects its ability to fertilize an egg. This topped with unhealthy living only adds to the difficulty of bearing a child.

But as Gulanikar and Esterhuizen both stressed - it only takes one sperm and one egg to make a baby, and that a couple who is experiencing difficulty getting pregnant should never give up.

Esterhuizen also made the point that with modern technology, doctors can nearly help anyone. Between donors eggs, donor sperm, and embryo adoption, the alternatives are numerous.

As Esterhuizen said, “There’s actually no such thing as, ‘We can’t help you.’”

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