Most women are not strangers to the idea of their biological clock ticking away. When you’re trying to conceive, this concept can make the pressure to get pregnant now even more intense. Though fertility is ageist (for men and women), understanding just how it can affect your chances of conception — and the health of your baby — can help put things in perspective and help you make educated choices about your future pregnancy. Read below on age and fertility.
How age affects fertility in women vs men
From a biological perspective, it makes sense that men’s and women’s fertility is affected differently by age. At the time of birth, a woman’s ovaries contain all of the eggs she’ll ever have. Men, however, can produce sperm for their entire lives. This can create a divide that feels unfair — women typically have a shorter period of time in which a healthy pregnancy is likely, while it has been said that men can father children into their 60’s and 70’s. This notion has been proven false, indicating that older men are presented with their own set of problems; as they age, their Leydig and Sertoli cells (two cells that are critical to the production and maturation of sperm) start to lose viability and decrease in number. Though men may be able to get a woman pregnant as they get older, the likelihood of birth defects increases exponentially.
Men and women alike have unique sets of advantages and disadvantages associated with conception in each decade of life. Let’s take a look at what that could mean.
Fertility in your 20’s
Experts consider the 20’s to be the best decade for a woman to conceive a child, biologically speaking. The odds of pregnancy each month range from 20 to 25%, the highest they’ll ever be. BabyCenter quotes Judith Albert, a reproductive endocrinologist and scientific director of Reproductive Health Specialists, as saying “The difference in a woman's fertility in her early and late 20s is negligible." That means it doesn’t matter if you start TTC in your early or late 20’s — your odds of success are the same.
Some of the advantages women have of trying to get pregnant in their 20’s include:
- Lowered likelihood of eggs that contain genetic abnormalities which could lead to your child having Down Syndrome or other birth defects
- 10% risk of miscarriage, which is much lower than the risk of older women
- Less likely to have babies that are premature or have a low birth weight
- Lowered risk of health complications during pregnancy, like gestational diabetes and hypertension
The disadvantages are minimal; the risk of preeclampsia is higher in first pregnancies, so if you get pregnant for the first time in your 20’s, this could be a risk factor. This doesn’t account for having specific fertility issues like uterine fibroids, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, or endometriosis. Women with these health issues can have a hard time conceiving, even in their 20’s.
Men in this age range generally don’t have to worry too much about fertility. There is little research that suggests infertility in younger men, though lifestyle habits, obesity, exposure to endocrine disruptors, and the contraction of sexually transmitted diseases can affect the motility, morphology, and concentration of his sperm at any age.
Fertility in your 30’s
If you’re trying to get pregnant in your early 30’s, and don’t have any underlying health issues that affect your fertility, the odds are in your favor — between a 15 and 20% chance of getting pregnant each month. A study conducted by NPR found that women in their thirties have about a 30% chance of getting pregnant on their first try. However, once you hit 35, your fertility begins to decline. This is largely due to the decreased quality and quantity of your eggs around this age. Though you may be less likely to get pregnant naturally after 35, the increased levels of the follicle-stimulating hormone can make your chances of having twins (or triplets!) increase because more eggs may be released in any given ovulation cycle.
The risks of getting pregnant in your 30’s, especially after 35 include:
- Higher C-section rates
- Increased risk for genetic problems of your baby
- Higher risks of miscarriages and stillbirths
- Increased likelihood of an ectopic pregnancy
These factors are certainly not meant to discourage you from TTC in your late 30’s. They’re simply a reminder that taking care of your health and consulting with a fertility doctor as you begin trying to get pregnant are important things to consider.
The Centers for Disease Control found that men were most likely to get a woman pregnant between the ages of 25 and 29 but, once they hit 30, their likelihood of fathering a child decreases by a lot. However, it’s important to note that this is usually due to lifestyle factors, rather than infertility problems. Around 30, his testosterone levels begin to slightly decline along with the amount of sperm he produces. The chances of conception taking more than one year are 12% between age 30 and 34, and 17% between age 35 and 39. Additionally, the chances of your baby having a genetic disorder like autism or Down Syndrome increase with age, too.
Fertility in your 40’s and beyond
Though it’s certainly not impossible to conceive in your 40’s, your chances of becoming pregnant during each ovulatory cycle dip to 5% between ages 40 and 44. Women aged 45 to 49 have as little as 1% chance. The CDC says that about half of women over 40 experience fertility problems. All pregnancy risks — from ectopic pregnancy to miscarriage to having a baby with a genetic disorder — greatly increase after age 40, and even more so after 45.
Some of the factors to consider when deciding if you want to get pregnant after 40 are:
- Higher miscarriage rates (34% at age 40, 53% by 45)
- Your chance of having a child with Down Syndrome rises from 1 in 100 at 40 years old, to 1 in 30 at 45
- An increase in likelihood for all genetic disorders
- Higher stillbirth rates
- Increased probability of C-sections, stillbirths, and low birth weights
This can feel discouraging but fertility treatments are available for older women, so don’t give up hope if you’re starting here.
Women aren’t alone in the significant decline in chances of conception after 40. Men begin to experience a more rapid decline in sperm motility, morphology, and concentration (this is especially true if they smoke, drink, or are obese). Studies show that the chance of it taking longer than a year to conceive are around 19% after age 40. Women who are impregnated by a man over 45 also experience a higher risk of miscarriage, and 40-year-old men are 5 times as likely to have a child on the autism spectrum than men under 30.
It’s obvious that age does affect fertility. While that can feel like a huge, unavoidable obstacle, there are always options. Male fertility and female fertility are different in many ways but maintaining a healthy body mass index, getting tested for genetic abnormalities, and continuously monitoring the health of your sperm or eggs are all great ways to be prepared for pregnancy — and it’s advantages and disadvantages — at any age.