Does age affect fertility?
The dreaded question that conjures the age-old, chimes of doom cliché of the biological clock.
Honestly, whoever invented that particular piece of imagery deserves a Big Ben bong on the bonce. It does nothing for us girls.
That often heard remark ‘ooh your biological clock is ticking’ conjures the image of some dusty old carriage clock, teetering on the mantelpiece, its spindly minute hand ticking ever closer to the hour mark like a biological version of the dreaded Doomsday Clock.
Do men have a biological clock? We never hear about it if they do. And anyway, it’d probably be an Apple Watch displaying a cool thumbs up sign with ‘You’re doing great, keep it up!’ in a speech bubble.
But we digress… The clock metaphor, as cringeworthy as it is, holds true: Age is the key factor affecting fertility.
Studies vary and the length of time it takes you to get pregnant depends on a number of factors, but all the studies show the same trends: as you get older, the percentages drop.
How age affects fertility is pretty simple to explain. Stand in any supermarket and take a look at the egg section. The boxes contain different quantities of eggs, sure. But they all have two things in common: 1. The number of eggs in the box you take to the check out is the same number you will find upon taking them home. They don't multiply. 2. They don't stay fresh forever, there is an expiration date on eggs after which point they will no longer be viable.
The parallels with human eggs are fairly consistent. We are all born with the total number of eggs that we will EVER have. We can’t make more. What is ‘in the box’ at the start, is the most there will ever be. Some women may be born with more or less than others, but the average is around 1-2 million.
It’s unlikely you’d find a box with a million eggs in the supermarket, but staying with the metaphor a little longer – no one has ever gone to bed knowing there was only one egg left in the fridge, only to go down in the morning to discover half a dozen have magically materialised.
Peak fertility occurs in our late teens, continuing to our mid-twenties. So far, so fertile. However, in a rollercoaster ride of the cruellest kind, once we hit our early-thirties, fertility starts to dip, plummeting as we enter our late-thirties until by our forties, it is half what it was when we were born.
Bummer? Yes. But we are women. And knowledge is empowering.
So, what have we learned? Basically, that we have a much higher chance of conceiving below the age of 35. And this isn’t only because we have more eggs. How age affects fertility is more than just a numbers game.
It’s to do with the quality too.
So, why is it hard to get pregnant as you get older? You know, in addition to a half-empty basket of eggs?
Like the best-before mark on the supermarket eggs, the longer we leave ours, the closer to their expiry date they get.
Changes occur in the eggs, and although all women whatever their age have a certain number of ‘unhealthy’ or ‘abnormal’ eggs, the older we get, the higher the percentage of ‘abnormal’ eggs in our cluster.
The risk of chromosomal abnormalities increases rapidly, particularly for those aged 40 and over, which in itself can lead to a higher risk of miscarriage and complications.
Other complications can include gestational diabetes, pre-eclampsia, placenta previa and even stillbirth.
Before that damnable ‘TICK-TOCK’ gets any louder in your ears, now might be a prudent time for a quick reminder that it takes TWO to make a baby, and aging affects fertility for men too.
Although, unlike women, men have the capacity to make millions of new sperm daily, these swimmers are subject to the same ravages of aging as our eggs. From the age of about 40 onwards, the amount of semen (the sperm-containing fluid) starts to decrease rapidly and the sperm themselves start to get tired and lethargic, much like the men in whom they reside.
But hey - we hear you protest – the modern 21st century lifestyle of building a career, friendships and economic stability doesn’t really marry up with the lifecycle of our eggs!
True – but there’s no telling biology that. So, what can you do to help if you are finding it hard to get pregnant as you get older?
Plenty. Maintaining a healthy BMI, eating a balanced diet, cutting out smoking and alcohol (cruel, we know) cutting down caffeine and staying on top of cervical smears are all steps to help ensure you are at optimum health for conception.
There is also the anti-Mullerian hormone (AMH) test – often nicknamed ‘the egg timer’ which measures the AMH in your blood which is closely linked to the number of eggs in the ovaries.
If you’re ready to start tracking your fertility, or have any questions about your overall female health, we’d love to help you out. Why not join our waitlist and we’ll let you know when we’re live so we can help guide you along the fertility path.