The Male Fertility Crisis
Traditionally speaking, referring to your kid as a “miracle” is more of a mom move. But when you consider the data on men’s sperm, dads might want to think about taking the “m” word for themselves. After all the weed smoking, drunken jacuzzi soaking, and hot laptop use of your younger years, it’s pretty unbelievable that anyone can make a baby outside of a test tube these days.
If the sound of a “sperm crisis” sounds familiar, that’s because it is. The same team of researchers published a meta-analysis in 2017 that suggested that the sperm counts had declined by more than 50 percent among men in North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand between 1973 and 2011.
The more recent deep-dive into over 250 studies on sperm quality found that sperm counts have declined about 2.6 percent every year from 2000 to 2018, “which is an amazing pace,” Hagai Levine, an epidemiologist who led the research, warns.
Although Levine and his colleagues had hoped that “at some point the decline would be leveling off,” he told National Geographic. “The opposite may be true, and we may cross a tipping point when most men will be sub-fertile or when the causes of this decline will also manifest by other adverse health trends.”
For some dads, this confirms that your wife was right about not waiting any longer to make the kid you already have. But while you graciously take that L, the findings raise a few questions for couples who are hoping to expand their families. For one, if you’re having difficulty conceiving, the data challenges the old assumption that infertility is primarily a women’s issue.
Historically, women have been more likely to seek out medical help for infertility, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a man's problem too. Other studies estimate that about one-third of fertility problems are due to the woman alone, one-third are due to the man alone, and the remaining third is a result of both people. So if you can’t seem to conceive and assume you’re fine, that’s just bad math. And more importantly, it might be time to get those swimmers checked.
For dads who might want to expand their families at some point in the next few years, but have your hands full of dirty diapers at the moment, it’s crucial to look at your sperm health as an extension of your overall health.
To put it in perspective, studies show a higher risk of hospitalization for men who had lower sperm concentrations. Particularly those with a concentration below 15 million/mL experienced a 53 percent increased risk of being hospitalized for any reason, compared to men with concentrations between 51 and 100 million/mL. The association between sperm health and regular health remained strong even after scientists controlled for smoking, weight, and other variables.
The key is figuring out a way to not let parenthood get in the way of taking care of yourself, which is easier said than done. If that doesn't work, there is some evidence that switching from boxer-briefs to boxers, or going commando, might improve sperm health. But hanging loose could upset the neighbors though, so remember to read the room.
Unfortunately, scientists suspect that the broader trend of poor sperm health may be a result of factors so far out of your control that they occurred in your mother's womb. Namely, prenatal exposure to chemicals like phthalates and bisphenol A in plastics can disrupt the development of the endocrine system. Not only can this decrease the size of a boy’s penis, but it can also hinder his testosterone production and sperm production throughout their lives.
Ultimately, this may be one of science’s crueler twists for parents. If you’re lucky enough to get your partner pregnant with a deck stacked against you, these chemicals are almost impossible to avoid in our modern world.
In other words, you get to worry about your son's sperm much earlier than your thought — maybe before you even meet the guy.
For more information on your sperm health: