Starting a family later than our parents or grandparents did is a natural by-product of living longer and embracing opportunities unknown to previous generations. And in the era of celebrities miraculously falling pregnant at increasingly later stages in life, it would be easy to believe that health – and science – can override almost any age-related demise.
But while good health has many benefits, winding back the biological clock isn’t one of them. Although being fit and healthy can increase the chances of conceiving and having a healthy baby, it won’t change the fact that for women, age is the single biggest factor affecting fertility.
A series of focus groups run by the Your Fertility project – a coalition made up of the Victorian Assisted Reproductive Treatment Authority, Andrology Australia, Jean Hailes for Women’s Health and The Robinson Institute – revealed a persistent belief among both women and men that, for women, health is more important than age when it comes to having a child.
Your Fertility spokesperson Louise Johnson says dispelling such myths and promoting the latest research on fertility is important not only for women, but in helping couples to “have the conversation” early if starting a family figures in their future plans.
“We want to empower women and men to have the best chance of having a family and the size family they want, if having children is part of their life plan,” she says.
“Our message is: If your relationship is as you want it and you both want to have children, consider your age and your partner’s age in deciding when to have a baby.”
The statements below correspond with focus group feedback. Read on to discover the truth behind these common fertility misconceptions...
Misconception #1: “Men’s fertility is not affected by age”
Although the impact of age on their ability to father a child is not as severe as it is for women, men’s fertility and the quality of their sperm is affected by age. Statistics also show a woman is likely to take longer to become pregnant if her male partner is over 45, and there is an increased risk she will miscarry. Unlike women’s eggs, men’s sperm do regenerate, so a man can certainly help the chances of conception and having a healthy child by quitting smoking, reducing alcohol and not using drugs (including steroids) prior to trying for a child.
Misconception #2: “Male health is not as important as female health when it comes to fertility”
Studies are revealing that the biological clock ticks as much for men as it does for women – dads’ health is just as important as mums’ when it comes to conception and health of the child. Mutations in sperm cells are believed to contribute to the greater chance that children of older fathers will develop schizophrenia and other mental health issues. Some research suggests children with fathers aged 40 or older are more than five times as likely to have an autism spectrum disorder than children fathered by men under 30.
Misconception #3: “It’s not about age, it’s more about how healthy you are”
No matter how healthy an individual woman is, as she ages, her chances of conceiving and bringing a healthy child to term decrease. It’s a biological fact that she’s born with all the eggs she’s going to have for her lifetime. So a woman’s eggs are as old as she is - and over time, they reduce in number and quality. The fertility “tipping point” for women is 35. After this, fertility starts to rapidly decline.
Misconception #4: “I’m 38 and to be honest with you, I feel like I’m 30... I don’t tell my body it’s 38”
The truth is that, for women, age is the single biggest factor affecting their ability to conceive and be able to deliver a healthy baby. It’s true that poor health practices, such as smoking, excessive alcohol use, drug use, and being overweight or underweight can affect your ability to conceive and have a healthy child. But being healthy won’t override age.
The American Society for Reproductive Medicine reports that a 30-year-old woman who is having regular unprotected sex has about a 20 per cent chance of getting pregnant in any given month. For a 40-year-old woman, that chance decreases to five per cent – and at this age, the risk of miscarriage is greater than the chance of a live birth.
Misconception #5: “IVF will overcome age-related infertility”
While IVF can offer older women the chance to fall pregnant, the reality is that in Australia, IVF statistics gathered over a year show that only six per cent of women aged 40–44 had a live baby. It’s a sobering statistic that highlights the importance of factoring in age when it comes to pregnancy plans.
Visit yourfertility.org.au to read up on other key factors that affect fertility, and to access tools such as an ovulation calculator and preconception health checklist.