Although it isn’t often considered, male infertility is a growing problem in the UK. As Clare Brown, chief Executive of Infertility Network UK, states, “It is commonly thought that women are the only sufferers of infertility problems, but in fact, in around a third of couples who are suffering infertility issues, it is the male that is experiencing problems”.
Yet the blinkered approach to infertility still persists. In one study, only 12% of men – less than half of the actual average figure – were concerned about their own fertility.
So is male fertility declining, and if so, what are the causes, and how can these be avoided by men who are trying to help their partner conceive?
This article on male infertility is written by Jackie Griffiths, a freelance journalist who writes health, medical, biological, and pharmaceutical articles for national and international journals, newsletters and web sites.
The scale of the issue
Professor Ledger of Sheffield University sees male infertility as a serious problem. “The sustainability of the population of Europe is at risk,” he claims, “because there are too few children being born. It is a real threat to the future”.
A recent study by Norwich Union Healthcare concluded that around two and a half million men in the UK have fertility problems – which accounts for a staggering 9% of the adult male population. This accounts for over 30% of all infertility problems. Other studies have shown that both the number and quality of sperm per ejaculation have declined significantly over the last thirty years.
The main causes
Doctors often cite lifestyle factors, such as smoking, as the cause of infertility in men. This may seem counterintuitive, since smoking levels have declined in recent years, yet infertility is on the rise. Clearly smoking is just one of many factors that can influence the issue, and although fewer men now smoke, it is still harmful to the fertility of those who do.
Another major factor that influences male fertility is excessive alcohol consumption. With the rise of the binge drinking culture amongst younger males, plus greater access to (and acceptance of) alcohol in society, it’s no surprise that this is contributing to the problem. Steady amounts, and sudden high amounts, of alcohol both adversely affect sperm quality.
Another issue affecting male fertility is obesity. Sperm are highly sensitive to increases in temperature, and the insulating effect of fatty tissue can be very damaging. This is linked to our increasingly sedentary lifestyle in two ways. Firstly, the lack of exercise itself decreases healthy body function including sperm production, and secondly, the longer one spends sitting, the more ‘incubated’ the testicles become, making temperature regulation more difficult and damage more likely.
Other lifestyle factors that can affect male infertility include:
- Metabolic pesticides such as DDT used in farming
- Bodybuilding drugs, such as steroids
- Sexually transmitted diseases, such as Chlamydia
- Extreme exercise
Male fertility is also affected by age. A recent Canadian study showed that DNA damage increased considerably with age, with men over 45 showing double the amount of damage than men under 30. As more and more couples leave having children until later in life, this is becoming an increasingly significant factor in their fertility.
Along with the many proven factors affecting male fertility, there is growing concern that the pollution of our planet is also having a negative effect. Hormones in our water supply, chemicals in the atmosphere, and pesticides and other chemicals on our food are all suspected of playing a role in male infertility.
What you can do to help
Infertility may be a growing problem among men, but the good news is that many of the factors thought to be causing it are under their own control. Some simple, common sense measures can greatly improve the chances of conceiving, including:
- Starting a family earlier in life
- Cutting out or cutting down on smoking
- Reducing alcohol consumption
- Losing weight and getting fit
- Taking breaks when sitting for long periods
- Reducing stress where possible
Some of these measures may seem dull or difficult to achieve, but they are surely worth it for the joy and pleasure of bringing a new baby into the world.