Saturday, November 08, 2008

His advice? "If my son or daughter was to ask, I'd tell them to have kids early -- and that's before 30."

Yo, dude, check your bio clock -- now
New studies warn that it isn't just women who become less fertile as they age
Sarah Treleaven , The Ottawa Citizen
Recently, I've had a lot of conversations about baby-making with my male friends.

"I worry that I might be too selfish to ever have children," said my friend Joe, 29, somewhat pensively over gin and cucumber cocktails. Ditto for Colin, who just broke up with a woman he loves because she wants to have kids in the next few years and, at 35, he just doesn't feel ready yet. Kids or no, they both feel like they have all the time in the world to decide.

I, on the other hand, just turned 30 and have been making a lot of jokes about needing an apartment with a second bedroom for my soon-to-be-frozen eggs.

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Font:****Lots of women wring their hands about having a baby. Not only do we have to worry about our plummeting fertility (which begins to tank in our mid-20s), but we also have to worry about job retention and advancement once those kids (come biology, adoption or surrogacy) eventually appear. And it's the physical limitations of the female ability to procreate that have placed such a heavy emphasis on the reproductive biological clock, shaping the way many women live, work and even date.

But evidence is increasingly emerging that men, too, have a reproductive biological clock -- and that it ticks much more loudly than most of us have thought. Even as stories occasionally emerge about septuagenarian and octogenarian men becoming proud papas -- author Saul Bellow, for example, fathered a child at 84 -- several recent studies are challenging the conventional wisdom that men have an invincible ability to procreate.

A French study released in July found that women's pregnancy rates drop and miscarriages increase when the mother is over 35 and the father is over 40. Another study suggests that a man's fertility begins to decrease as early as his 20s. Researchers from the University of California at Berkeley and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory tested men between the ages of 22 and 80, and found that semen volume and sperm motility were both significantly compromised by aging.

Additionally, the increased odds for older fathers producing genetic abnormalities have been well documented, and studies have demonstrated that fathers over 40 are six times more likely to produce an autistic child than fathers under 30.

The numbers related to schizophrenia are similarly compelling. A study utilizing health databases in Jerusalem found that fathers over 40 were twice as likely to produce schizophrenic children as fathers who were under 25; for fathers over 50, the odds tripled when compared to fathers who were under 25.

Dr. Harry Fisch, director of the Male Reproductive Center at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center and the author of The Male Biological Clock, says that he's been ringing the alarm bell for years.

"There's a female biological clock; we all agree on the decline in fertility, more genetic problems and a decline in estrogen.

"The same thing happens in men -- a little bit differently, but essentially the same," Fisch says. "Why is it important? Well, demographically more men and women are waiting until they're over 30 to have a baby."

Yo, dude, check your bio clock -- now
New studies warn that it isn't just women who become less fertile as they age
Sarah Treleaven , The Ottawa Citizen
"Over 35, the women are at risk for genetic problems, the men's sperm is at risk for genetic problems; put it together and I consider it a public health concern."

Women in their mid-30s routinely panic about their odds of conception and the health of their baby. The key question associated with the emerging science is this: Is it time for men to start panicking too?

Many fertility experts remain unconvinced that these recent findings are significant. Dr. Paul Claman of the Ottawa Fertility Centre says that men do indeed have a reproductive clock, but that it pales in comparison to the biological reality women face.

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Font:****"Recent data have shown that there are some genetic issues with men as they get older, but much less profound than with women," Claman says.

Dr. Armand Zini, associate professor of urology at McGill University, agrees. "(With) women, there's a real time point where it ceases. Once you cease to ovulate, there's no fertility. In men, it's a very gradual decline from 30s or early 40s."

Women only produce a set number of eggs, and by the time they've reached their early 30s, that supply is significantly compromised. Men, on the other hand, produce sperm throughout their lives, which explains how a 90-year-old farmer in India became a father last year to his 21st child.

Both men and women who choose younger partners (under the age of 35) increase their odds for both conception and newborn health. "An older woman married to a younger man has a much higher chance of getting pregnant than an older woman married to a man her age or older," says Claman.

Interpretations of these new studies may be varied, but will any of this new evidence be enough to get men thinking about the sand running through their reproductive hourglass?

Jason McBride, a 39-year-old writer without children, says the recent studies about male fertility don't concern him in the least. He does acknowledge that he gets pressure from his family to have kids -- "mostly from my hilarious aunt who's always talking about how old my sperm is." But he believes that his option to become a biological parent will remain available for a long time yet. "My biological clock is still on snooze," he says.

Dustin Parkes, on the other hand, is a 28-year old public relations consultant who feels compelled to have kids while he's still relatively young. "I definitely don't want to be a broken-down old man chasing around a toddler." He holds out little hope that he'll meet his goal of being a dad before he's 30, but he, too, acknowledges that the recent studies are of little concern.

There are still a lot of unanswered questions about male fertility, and recent studies are far from eclipsing the well-established reproductive limitations of women. But these recent studies might serve as the start of a reproductive wakeup call for men.

For those who do delay fatherhood, Zini says living a healthy lifestyle can help to prevent the decline of sperm production and testicular function, which invariably diminish with age. He recommends avoiding environmental toxins (including smoking) and excessive exposure to heat (such as saunas and whirlpools) and certain occupational hazards (such as taxi driving, which requires sitting for prolonged periods of time).

Fisch says that having a baby over the age of 35 -- male or female -- still increases the odds of infertility and genetic disorders. His advice? "If my son or daughter was to ask, I'd tell them to have kids early -- and that's before 30."

McBride admits that the ticking of his clock occasionally becomes audible. "As I get more and more infirm," he jokes, pointing to his new orthotic, "I worry about not being able to run around with my kids."

Parkes feels it too, and anticipates that the ticking will get louder in the next few years. "It helps that my circle of friends doesn't seem to be as into having kids, but who knows how much longer that will last? If I get to 35 without a kid, I think I'll throw all my mating standards away and just try to impregnate anything."

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© The Ottawa Citizen 2008

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