Silent agony of husbands haunted by male infertility

Recent research shows that sperm counts are declining among men of reproductive age at a terrifying rate.

The fact that a man is fit, neither drinks nor smokes, does not help when it comes to falling sperm count, experts say.

In July, new research examining data on more than 43,000 men showed sperm counts in the Western world are declining at a terrifying rate.

Between 1973, when reliable records began, and 2011, Western men’s sperm concentration fell by an average of 1.4 per cent a year, an overall fall of 53 per cent in 38 years.

In the span of one generation (25 years) the drop was 60 per cent.

While women are certainly choosing to have babies later in life — the average age of a first-time mother in the UK is 29.6, a rise of almost four years in four decades — their physical fertility rates have followed the same steady curve.

Only 3 per cent of 20 to 24-year-old women will have trouble conceiving, rising to 15 per cent after the age of 35.

But men, who had always assumed they would remain fecund into middle age and beyond, are finding their fertility is falling off a cliff — often while they are comparatively young.

In the past, a third of fertility problems were said to be from the male side, a third from the female side and the rest ‘unexplained.’ But experts now believe problems with sperm quality or count may account for some of the ‘unexplained’ cases.

While no specific reason has been found, it is suspected that pollution from the air and from contact with certain plastics, plus unhealthy lifestyles, is to blame.

Chronic stress levels and use of antidepressants may also play a part.

Some concerned scientists have dubbed it ‘spermageddon’ and say it could even lead to the end of the human race.

‘The data serves as a wake-up call,’ says Dr. Hagai Levine, the epidemiologist behind the study that identified the decline.

‘If we do not make a drastic change to how we live and the chemicals we are exposed to, I am worried about the future,’ Levine says.

As reported by Mail, another concern is that damaged sperm are having an effect already, which might help to explain the rise of conditions such as autism.

Then there is the impact, all too easy to overlook, on men’s mental health.

While society has long accepted how devastating infertility is for women, men often suffer in silence, fearing to admit there is a problem. Many confess to having suicidal feelings.

Professor Sheena Lewis, of the British Andrology Society, says the effect on men’s self-confidence can be devastating: ‘It’s a hugely emasculating issue because men are inclined to think fertility is connected to virility — which it isn’t — and that they can’t be a good lover if they can’t be a father.

“They don’t want to talk to their partner or to male friends, and feel they must be ‘strong’ for their partner when inside, they’re hurting.

“Men are hugely lacking in support. Even within the fertility industry they are marginalised. Every test and treatment is geared towards the woman, while the man is treated as “the sperm producer.”

“What’s more, the current semen analysis doesn’t even check for DNA damage in the sperm; so, in my opinion, it’s unfit for purpose. Couples need to ask for a specific test to check. That needs to change,” Lewis counsels.

Between 20 and 25 per cent of all sperm problems could be due to an underlying medical condition, and men taking medication for other conditions should check it isn’t damaging to sperm.

“There are underlying conditions which affect hormone levels and there are sometimes testicular factors such as tumours, infection or undescended testes,’ says Professor Geeta Nargund, medical director of Create Fertility.

“But lifestyle and environmental factors are also to blame — we know that smoking can affect sperm, as can being overweight and taking anabolic steroids.

“And it’s not only women who have a biological clock. After the age of 40, a man’s sperm quality and count decline. It takes longer to conceive and there is evidence that autism, ADHD and mental health disorders are more common in children whose fathers are older.”

Often, fertility treatment can offer help to these men. “Around one per cent of men have azoospermia — they have no sperm in the semen,” says Nargund.

“In some cases, we can obtain sperm from the testes and use ICSI treatment; but if there are no sperm at all, we look at donor sperm.

“For other men, ICSI can help with severe sperm problems. But it’s important to remember that only 30 per cent of fertility treatment is successful.

“We need to educate boys and men to protect their natural fertility,” Nargund submits.

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