We wish we could say the biological clock concept is old news, but it’s not. In fact, if maternal age was considered an infertility factor, the proverbial clock would be one of the leading causes of infertility for women 36 years and older in the US and abroad.
The reality is that age impacts both egg and sperm health (that’s right! A male partner’s age matters, too! Click Here to read more about that), and those impacts can compromise your east of conceiving a baby and enjoying a healthy, full-term pregnancy.
The Biological Clock Matters Because…
The prime “fertility window” for women is between the ages of 18 and 29. Between these years, healthy women’s bodies are fully grown and mature enough to support a full-term pregnancy and eggs are less likely to have experienced breakdowns in their DNA.
Outside of some of the common female infertility factors that have nothing to do with age, like endometriosis, PCOS, or obesity, the biological clock exists due to a decrease in egg quantity and quality.
Here are some basic egg facts:
- Women are born with all of the immature egg follicles they’ll ever have
- Your eggs are as old as you are
- Egg quality is one of the most important fertility factors, and the quality of your eggs diminishes over time
- Egg stores (ovarian reserves) diminish over time
As a result of these and other factors, researchers in the 1980s began to take a closer look at the relationship between advancing maternal age and decreasing fertility rates. Since then, here are some of the things we’ve established about maternal age and fertility.
Fertility rates begin to drastically decline by age 37
By the time a woman is 35+ years of age, her chances of getting pregnant each month she tries to conceive steeply declines. Most women are infertile by age 45, and even with the help of IVF, women 45-years old have a less than 5% chance of getting pregnant. This is almost entirely due to the decline in egg quality.
IVF success rates closely mirror natural fertility success rates in their unassisted fertility counterparts
While IVF can increase your chances of conception to a point, a quick check of any clinic’s IVF success rates with women 40+ and who use their own eggs (more on donor eggs below) mirrors a similar curve to natural fertility rates.
Older women have healthier (less tolerant) immune systems
The realm of immuno-based infertility is a pioneering front for many IVF clinics. In addition to lower-quality eggs, some fertility specialists have focused on the fact that older women have healthier immune systems. Their bodies may be healthy enough to conceive a baby and carry it full term, but their body is treating their partner’s sperm, the fertilized egg, or the implanted fetus as “an invader” and attacks it.
As a result, a growing body of literature recommends that older women without any specific infertility diagnosis, but who are struggling to conceive, find a fertility specialist with a successful track record of identifying and treating immuno-based infertility.
Risks of miscarriage or birth defects are much higher at 35+
Women 35 and older also have a higher risk of experiencing a miscarriage or giving birth to a baby with a genetic birth defect or chromosomal abnormality. Again, this is largely due to the deterioration of the egg’s DNA over time. Older women are also more likely to experience a stillbirth.
For example, the following is a woman’s chance of delivering a baby with Down’s Syndrome (common chromosomal disorder) based on age:
- <35: 1 in 350
- 35 to 40: 1 in 100
- 45+: 1 in 30
These increased risks reflect similar increases associated with advanced maternal age and other chromosome/gene abnormalities.
What Can You Do?
What can you do if you are a woman in your early 30s and planning to delay the start of your family? Schedule an appointment with your OB/GYN to discuss your options. Solutions include:
- Scheduling AMH and other hormone tests to evaluate ovarian reserves (you may find you have less eggs available than you thought, which shifts your fertility planning)
- Consider egg freezing so your eggs remain “frozen” in their younger, more viable state. When you’re ready to pursue IVF, your success rates will remain in the age bracket you were when the eggs were frozen.
- Open yourself to the idea of family building at an earlier age. If possible, consider starting your family earlier than you would have otherwise. This can save you tens of thousands of dollars in future fertility treatment costs.
- Learn about donor egg opportunities. If you aren’t interested in retrieving eggs and freezing them now or before you turn 33, think about the potential of using donor eggs. As with your own eggs, using donor eggs elevates your IVF success rates to that of the donor’s age when her eggs were retrieved.
- Live a healthy lifestyle. There is a direct correlation between overall physical health, diet, exercise, and lower-stress levels and higher fertility rates. Taking good care of your body now makes it a more viable place for a healthy baby to grow down the road.
Do you have questions about your biological clock and how to increase your chances of getting pregnant at home? Schedule a preconception appointment with us here at OB/GYN Associates of Spokane.