Sperm counts are dropping worldwide to an astonishing degree. The latest issue of National Geographic examines this phenomenon and the subsequent rise of male “sub-fertility”; it conjures up images of noted sci-fi literature like the kid-starved societies depicted in Children of Men or A Handmaid’s Tale.
A 62 percent drop on sperm counts—and an even faster percentage drop in recent years—raises the threat of a time “when most men will be sub-fertile,” says medical epidemiologist Hagai Levine. Lower sperm counts may also be associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, testicular cancer, and early death.
Over the past 40 years, sperm counts worldwide have halved and sperm quality has declined alarmingly with 1 in 20 men currently facing reduced fertility. Potential causes of this male fertility crisis include exposure to environmental chemicals that affect hormones such as plasticizers, bisphenol A, and phthalates; rising rates of obesity; and the trend of delayed parenthood.
Overall, infertility is on the rise with 1 in 6 couples wishing to conceive being diagnosed as infertile. The use of assisted reproductive technologies (ART) is therefore increasing at a rate of 5–10% per year, due to greater need.
Infertility also carries a heavy emotional burden, and contrary to the popular image, it’s not borne by women alone. Men suffer the painful and isolating effects of infertility as well: one subject of a study says, “here I am finding out that I am unable to pass on my genetics and the biologist in me says ‘you are worthless, you have no purpose of living’. I was on the verge of suicide for a while.”
The psychological cost is also devastating, many men still associate male identity with fertility. Virility is practically defined by sexual potency and infertility is heavily stigmatized–even more so in the past when masculinity was defined more narrowly.
The plummeting sperm count accelerates after the age of 40 and the quality of the sperm is significant as well. It can be associated with increased DNA damage, and the mutation rate, especially in older men, can increase the risk of complex disease in offspring, such as schizophrenia, autism, and childhood cancer. Indeed, it may be one of the leading causes of the skyrocketing rates of autism in children.
But while male fertility is declining, women still get the lion’s share of attention from the medical community. Little to no research is being translated into meaningful clinical interventions for men. To improve the treatment of male infertility, in-depth analyses for the assessment of sperm quality are required that link with clinical outcomes that may have an application in real life.
In an article in Biology of Reproduction, Vardit Ravitsky and Sarah Kimmins suggest that information about reproductive health and fertility must be responsibly and widely disseminated to boys and men beginning in school sex education programs and throughout their adult lives. This will lead to increased understanding of the crucial role they can play in taking preventive measures, preserving their fertility, and promoting the health of their future children.
If the present situation remains true to the emerging pattern, humanity may face the prospect of a future when babies will be conceived almost exclusively in test tubes.
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