In the past, discussions of the role aging play infertility have almost exclusively been directed toward women. Recent information gained from studies has changed this. The effect of aging on male fertility has become a topic of more intense study, leading to a greater understanding of how the human reproductive system operates.
While women experience a sudden cessation of fertility with the onset of menopause, men generally don’t experience a significant change in fertility as they age. However, recent studies show that as men age their reproductive abilities do decline. It is true that men produce sperm throughout their lives, but there is a measurable decrease in the concentration, count, and motility in the sperm produced after men reach the age of twenty-five.
It is important to remember that fertility is unique to the individual. It is not uncommon, of course, for men to father children well into their senior years, but certain physiological changes are unavoidable as the aging process continues. These factors can affect, therefore, male fertility. These changes take place primarily in the testes.
Testicular mass decreases with age and some men experience a decline in the level of testosterone (the male sex hormone), while others have levels that remain the same. Through the process of sclerosis, the tubes which carry sperm become less elastic, and though the testes continue to produce sperm, the rate at which sperm cells are produced slows. With age, the seminal vesicles, epididymis, and prostate gland lose surface cells, but the fluid which carries the sperm is still produced.
Additionally, fifty percent of men are affected by a condition known as Benign Prostatic Hypertrophy. This condition occurs when the prostate gland enlarges as some of the normal tissue is replaced with fibrotic tissue. This is not the same as testicular cancer. Benign Prostatic Hypertrophy is not life-threatening.
The effects of these physical changes on male fertility vary case by case, making age alone, as a sole determining factor of fertility, a poor predictor. Prostate function is not closely related to fertility, though while the volume of fluid ejaculated stays about the same, the actual number of living sperm capable of making the journey to and fertilizing, the egg decreases.
Muscles that are responsible for ejaculation also weaken over time, such that older men do not ejaculate with the strength of younger men. This can affect how sperm travels toward the egg, and whether or not the sperm will even make the complete journey. Even with these physical changes, it must be stated that semen parameters are usually still within normal limits, even with the reduced sperm motility and concentration.
Further studies also indicate that the sperm themselves have a greater opportunity of change as the aging process goes forward which can have a definite effect on male fertility. In the late 90s, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine lowered the age limit for semen donors to age 40.
This number was not chosen because of any scientific evidence, however, it is clear that as men age the continuous division of cells as sperm are formed increases the opportunity for errors in DNA replication. For example, a twenty-year-old male will have had 200 divisions while a forty-five-year-old man will have had 770 divisions for spermatogonia.
Certainly further research is called for, however it is known that advanced paternal age (men over the age of 45 are considered advanced) is associated with disorders such as Marfan Syndrome, Apert Syndrome and Retinitis Pigmentosa and possibly others. Such cases, however are rare.
The process of aging itself does not prevent a man from fathering children or engaging in satisfying sexual relationships. Other factors that may impact fertility, however, may not be completely physical in nature. Impotence is often a concern for older men and is often a result of medical or psychological problems, though most scientists and doctors agree that over ninety percent of impotence is caused by a medical issue.
Certain medications such as those used to treat high blood pressure and conditions such as diabetes can cause impotence. In most cases, impotence is highly treatable, and any man suffering from this condition should consult a physician.
Decreases in the sexual drive can also affect fertility. Whether due to a decrease in testosterone levels, impotence issues, or disparity between the needs of sexual partners, a lack of interest in sex has a definite negative impact on male fertility. Studies have shown that men who engage in healthy, regular sexual activity in their middle years have an increased likelihood of avoiding common sexual problems at a later age, which may make their attempts to father children more successful.
The related condition of Aging Male Syndrome has an impact on male fertility. Characterized by a decrease in testosterone, other symptoms include weight gain or feeling of being fat, problems sleeping, loss of libido, irritability, lack of motivation, nervousness, erectile dysfunction,
lowered self-confidence, memory problems, tiredness, muscle loss, increased urination, depression, mood swings, loss of energy, bone loss, and hair loss. A multi-faceted approach to this condition is often the most effective treatment. Many patients have reported positive results when the condition is appropriately handled, which in some cases has to lead to the solution for fertility issues.
It is true that men and women experience the aging process differently. The concept of male menopause really is misleading when applied to the subject of male fertility. For the most part, men generally remain fertile through their entire adult lives, their thirties being the optimal years for reproduction.
Quality of life, stress, related medical conditions and other environmental influences are as much a part of male fertility as the aging process. Human reproduction is a subject about which there are still many questions and while we have an understanding now that men do change as they age, experiencing change infertility, it is still not the same as the physical changes women undergo during menopause.
Staying healthy, keeping a good level of activity and fitness, as well as minimizing stress and negative factors in life are still keys to increasing the likelihood of conception, for men as well as women. Seeking medical advice and treatment for any conditions or problems will also increase chances of conception. Male fertility is a subject which will garner more study in the future, but the evidence continues to show that men are able to father children well into their advanced years.