How Much Does a Man’s Age Matter for His Fertility, Really?
Not as much as you’d think.
December 20, 2017
By Korin Miller, Self Magazine
It’s been drilled into women for years: Try to have your babies before your mid-30s to have the greatest chance of conceiving a healthy baby. But there doesn’t seem to be much age-related fertility advice when you’re a man. Still, some guys think twice about having babies when they’re older.
John Stamos is apparently one of them. The Fuller House actor, 54, recently announced that he’s expecting his first child with his fiancée Caitlin McHugh, 31. “We have the same morals and the same values, that all clicked nicely. So we said, ‘Oh, well, maybe we should have a family,’” Stamos told People. According to Stamos, McHugh suggested, “‘Maybe we should have a kid [before we get married]’ and I said, ‘Why?’” Before McHugh jokingly said, “Because you’re old.”
Apparently Stamos was blown away when McHugh became pregnant. “The look on John’s face when I told him we were pregnant was priceless,” she said. “It was the look of a man who has wanted a family of his own but wasn’t sure it was going to happen for him. Now it is!” Stamos said he’s “always wanted to be a dad” but wasn’t sure it was in the cards. “People would say, ‘You should have a child,’” he said. “I was like, ‘That ship has sailed.’”
While there’s some pretty straightforward information about age and fertility in women, things are much less clear when it comes to men.
When pregnant women hit 35, they’re automatically thrown into the medical category of “advanced maternal age.” It doesn’t sound particularly complimentary, but it really just means doctors will give women in this group more testing than usual to make sure everything is OK with them and their babies. That’s because once you make it to this age group, you’re at a higher risk for developing gestational diabetes and high blood pressure during your first pregnancy, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). Plus, the (small) risk of having a baby born with a chromosomal abnormality increases as you age.
Despite all that info for women, there aren’t specific guidelines like that for men. Still, we know that, “in general, maternal and paternal age do impact fertility rates and after age 40, fertility rates decline,” Thomas L. Toth, M.D., a reproductive endocrinologist at Boston IVF and an associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School, tells SELF. “However, it appears that the decline is not nearly as significant in the male patient as the female patient.” There are plenty of famous older dads to back that up: George Clooney was 56 when his twins were born and Hugh Hefner was 65 when his youngest son was born.
That doesn’t mean every guy can keep having babies into their 60s and 70s—or that it comes without any risks.
One reason why guys are fertile later in their lives than women is because sperm are constantly in the process of regenerating (a full cycle takes up to three months), Jennifer Hirshfeld-Cytron, M.D., director of fertility preservation at Fertility Centers of Illinois, tells SELF. Women, on the other hand, are born with a set number of follicles (immature eggs) that die, decrease in quality, or are lost to menstruation as time goes on.
However, the concentration of sperm can go down, along with the actual volume of semen a man produces, Dr. Toth says. The shape of his sperm and motility (meaning, how his swimmers swim) can be impacted as well. If a man is struggling with these, it could lower his overall fertility. Those changes to sperm quality tend to depend on men’s overall health, Dr. Hirshfeld-Cytron says. For instance, medications that men may take to treat hypertension and diabetes can impact sperm, and having heart disease can negatively impact a man’s sperm, she says.
But even if a man has solid sperm that doesn’t mean he’ll actually conceive. Older men may have health issues that make it more difficult for them to have sex, and tend to have sex less often than their younger counterparts, which will decrease pregnancy rates, Mark Payson, M.D., a reproductive endocrinologist and medical director at CCRM Northern Virginia, tells SELF.
According to recent research, there may be some genetic changes happening as a man ages. Studies have found small increases in the likelihood of having a baby that goes on to develop autism, bipolar disorder, or psychosis as paternal age goes up (above age 45). But the overall risks for these conditions are low, and these population studies can’t determine an exact cause and effect, only a correlation between a father’s age and the risks for these issues. Overall, “this isn’t something to worry about,” Dr. Hirshfeld-Cytron says.
Ultimately, if you’re planning to have a baby with a male partner on the older side, his age isn’t likely to be the deciding factor on whether or not you conceive.
“There’s no reason to believe that someone couldn’t conceive because of paternal age,” Dr. Toth says. There are definitely male issues that can lead to infertility, but they aren’t as closely tied to his age as you might think. So, if it seems to be taking longer than normal for you to get pregnant, have him check in with his doctor. Most can easily do a semen analysis to check out the state of his swimmers—regardless of his age.