The Male Biological Clock Is Ticking Too: How Age Impacts Men's Fertility

"Male infertility figures often come as a shock to men."

“Don’t leave it too late.” It’s a phrase most women circling 30 will have heard if they’ve ever expressed a desire to have children in the future – often from well-meaning relatives, echoing newspaper headlines.

Far less is said about how a man’s chance of conceiving a child also decreases with age, despite the fact men are choosing to become fathers later in life. The average age of new fathers is now 33.3 years, up from 32.9 years in 2013, while 10% of new dads are now aged 40-44, and 5.1% over 45.

“There is a ticking male biological clock,” says Sarah Norcross, director of fertility campaign group Progress Educational Trust, citing studies that show men over 40 are half as likely to get their partners pregnant as men under 25.

“Miscarriage rates rise,” she adds, “and the likelihood of having a child with Down’s syndrome increases. Research also suggests an association between advanced paternal age and higher risk of preterm birth, schizophrenia and autism.”

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Despite the fact the quality and quantity of men’s sperm declines with age, traditionally, says Norcross, fertility has been viewed as a “female issue”.

Darren, 27, from Kent agrees. “I have never had a chat about fertility with other men,” he says. “But I do think about it and with the whole ‘not getting any younger’ stigma often attached to women having kids, it is something that I believe men should talk about more.”

Research indicates male fertility isn’t something men – or their partners – can ignore. Last year data from the The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which regulates fertility treatment in the UK, found the most common reason for a couple to seek fertility treatment was male fertility problems.

It’s not always easy to pinpoint the cause of an individual’s low sperm count. It can be down to lifestyle factors (such as excessive alcohol consumption or smoking), a hormone imbalance, or genetics. But age is also known to be a contributing factor. “Men are irrefutably half of the fertility equation,” says Norcross. “Fertility is a male issue.”

Professor Geeta Nargund, founder and medical director of Create Fertility clinics, believes media reports of male celebrities becoming fathers well into their fifties and sixties skew some men’s perceptions of fertility. It is possible for men to become fathers much older than women, but fertility isn’t a given.

Clients are sometimes surprised when she tells them the statistics on male infertility. “These figures often come as a shock to men, as it is the woman who has to go through fertility treatment, and men can be less likely to speak with family or friends about their difficulties with conceiving,” she says.

Although none of us can slow time, Dr Anupa Nandi, a consultant gynaecologist and specialist in reproductive medicine at Lister Fertility Clinic, says there are some lifestyle changes men can make to limit the impacts of ageing on fertility.

These include:

  • Stopping smoking, limiting alcohol intake, getting medical advice regarding various medical conditions or medicines which can adversely affect sperm.

  • Getting checked for any sexually transmitted infections (chlamydia and gonorrhoea can both cause low sperm count).

  • Doing mild to moderate exercise to keep BMI in the healthy range of 20-25.

  • Eating a healthy balanced diet to get all the necessary minerals, vitamins and antioxidants needed for optimal sperm production and function. However, there is no medically proven diet for fertility.

The ideal temperature for sperm production is 34.5 degrees, lower than the body temperature of 37 degrees. “Men should try and avoid activities that increases the scrotal temperature like avoiding very tight underwear [and] take regular breaks if the job involves a hot environment,” advises Dr Nandi.

Gym-goers should also be careful taking any muscle-building supplements, she adds, because “many of them can have testosterone to build muscles but can kill the sperms permanently”.

A recent study by Rutgers University suggested men should consider banking sperm in their mid 30s to avoid putting the health of their unborn children at risk.

Egg freezing is the fastest growing fertility trend among women, but Dr Nandi says sperm freezing “is not a solution” for men who wish to delay parenthood. Instead of normalising increasingly expensive artificial reproductive techniques, she’d like couples to feel better supported to have children at a younger age.

“We need more input in raising fertility awareness and supporting young couples to balance career and relationship so that they complete their family at a younger age before the natural decline in fertility and be more aware of the implications of delaying pregnancy,” she says.

And despite being founder of a chain of private IVF clinics, Professor Nargund agrees that relying on artificial techniques is not the way forward.

“Many men and women coming to my clinic simply aren’t aware of just how common male factor infertility is,” she says. “Educating young men and women about their fertility at school, a cause I have championed for many years, would mean that they can better monitor and protect their future fertility, and increase their chances of natural conception.”