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The fertility information gap

This week, we’re at the American Society of Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) conference hearing from the leaders in reproductive health and fertility, soaking in the newest scientific findings, and presenting our latest research to help advance women’s health. We originally published a summary of this data in our Modern State of Fertility.

It’s no secret that people are waiting until they’re older to have kids. For example, according to data summarized by the New York Times, in San Francisco (where Modern Fertility is based), the average age of first-time mothers is 31.9. Nationally, on average, women first become parents at 26, and men at 31.

Compare this to where we were about 40 years ago: in 1971, women first became parents at age 21, and men at 27. When people wait longer to have kids, there’s an increase in the chance of infertility—this has been demonstrated in research many times over.

But the age at which people start having kids isn’t the only thing that’s changing. Compared to our 1971 baby-making counterparts, we’re less likely to smoke cigarettes (but we’re still vaping), and we’re more likely to lead sedentary lifestyles and have unhealthy body mass indexes (BMIs).

These demographic trends are important when talking about fertility because smoking has known effects on both egg and quality and quantity, and high BMIs are associated with higher risks of infertility in both men and women as well.

Though OB-GYNS, reproductive endocrinologists, and fertility researchers may be well aware of the effects of age and lifestyle factors on fertility in both women and men, it’s really important that everyone understands these effects, too, especially if they ever plan on or are currently trying to conceive.

So, how well do we understand these effects? We surveyed hundreds of women nationwide to find out.

Male fertility is a bit of a mystery (to some women)

Our study found that women are pretty knowledgeable about how age and lifestyle factors affect female fertility. But they’re less knowledgeable about those same factors and their role in male fertility.  

For example, while 90% of women accurately stated that a woman’s weight can affect her fertility, only 54% accurately stated that a man’s weight can affect his fertility.

We’re striving for a world where everyone is fully in the know about how age and lifestyle affect fertility in both men and women, but our data shows us that we’re not quite there yet.

In some cases, it’s clear that there’s still a lot of education and information that is needed. For example, only 1.2% of women answered all of the questions about how age impacts fertility correctly.

When it comes to a heterosexual couple trying to conceive, it takes two to tango—so it’s important to know that both men and women contribute to how likely conception is. The blame of infertility is often placed on women, and this might be exacerbated in part by the fact that women are more aware of the effect of age and lifestyle on their fertility, as compared to the effect they have on men’s fertility.

Women who’ve previously used fertility treatments are more knowledgeable about the effects of women’s age on fertility

Our survey asked women some background questions, like whether they were infertile (either diagnosed by a doctor, or had been trying to conceive for 12+ months), and whether they’ve previously used fertility treatments.

While we didn’t see any difference in knowledge scores based on whether women were infertile, we did see differences based on whether women had previously used fertility treatments.

Specifically, women were more knowledgeable about the effects of women’s age on fertility if they’d previously used fertility treatments.

In an ideal world, all women would be experts about how age can affect their fertility—not just women who’ve extensively dealt with reproductive endocrinologists and infertility specialists.

Knowledge = power, and we need more of it

It’s 2019. We’re not all having babies in our early 20s, and our lifestyles look different than they did when our parents and grandparents were growing up. There’s no right or wrong here, but it’s important if and when people decide to have kids that they’re able to make well-informed decisions with the right data on hand.

Getting scientifically accurate info can be hard, and can seem daunting. We’re hopeful that general physicians, OB-GYNS, and other medical specialists will continue informing women to the best of their abilities—and of course, we’ve got your back, too.

Note on the methodology of our study

See the full findings from the Modern State of Fertility. We recruited 327 women through an e-mail newsletter in partnership with Glamour. All web-based survey responses were anonymous, and participation was 100% voluntary. We asked women a series of true/false questions about the effect of age, smoking, and BMI on women’s and men’s fertility, and calculated overall scores (the number of questions answered correctly) per participant. This study was IRB-approved.

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Talia Shirazi

Talia is a biological anthropology PhD candidate at Penn State, passionate about women's reproductive health and behavioral neuroendocrinology.

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