I wanted to call this blog ‘Statistics Schmistics’ but I was worried you might think I’d made another typo. For all the eagle-eyed readers among you who noticed I spelt Kirstie Allsopp’s name wrong last week, thank you for being polite and not mentioning it. I’m afraid I’ve never been a great speller – no child of mine is going to win ‘the bee’ although I will be sure to teach them how to use an apostrophe. This infertile knows how to write ‘It’s a girl!’ even if she might never get to say it.
Anyway, since the whole Kirstie debacle I’ve been thinking a lot about statistics and particularly her assertion that your fertility ‘falls off a cliff’ aged 35. Writing for the Guardian, the journalist Hadley Freeman rubbished her statement by saying that according to a recent study 78% of 35 to 40 year olds who start trying to conceive get pregnant within a year, compared to 84% of 20 to 34 years. Hadley says it’s ‘more of a speed bump than a cliff’ (nice line, Hadley, especially if it’s true).
This got me thinking that if age isn’t as significant as everyone keeps saying, why is it that infertility seems to be a major issue of our time. The HFEA (the UK’s independent regulator of fertility treatment) says that one in seven couples have difficulty conceiving and it’s the second most prevalent reason that women of childbearing age go to their GPs.
Now, I’m not a lover of statistics. Damned lies as far as I’m concerned. But it does seem to be true that everyone knows someone who’s been affected by it. Is this because infertility is becoming an epidemic or is it because people are talking about it more? And if it is growing who the hell is asking why? Age matters, yes, but I don’t believe it can be the only reason either. Maybe people are seeking help earlier and pursuing IVF not because they need it but because they can? Maybe it’s due to declining sexual health? Or is it something else entirely: GM crops; global warming; Starbucks coffee; reality TV?
So for this week’s question, I’m not looking for statistics. Statistics schmistics. Just give me your hunch.
My hunch…….. I ended up having my immune system suppressed by the magic of Mr T to have my daughter on my 4th round of ivf. Yes my immunes may have been high due to having severe endo but I truly believe that it was the incredibly stressful job that I had for ten years prior to trying to conceive. Stress is also a contributing factor, the first cycle with my immunes properly monitored and suppressed I conceived! Two years down the line after a move to the country and being off work to raise my precious daughter I just had my son, naturally. My immunes when tested were back to normal.
So my hunch is infertility is yes talked about much more these days but I truly believe it’s a growing problem. We leave it later and we have much more stressful lives all contributing to making it much more difficult. Just a hunch ……
Thanks so much for your comment and I completely agree. Even though clinicians say that stress is not a significant issue, I don’t think we fully understand the complexities of stress yet. I feel exactly the same about reproductive immunology. There is no doubt in my mind that the immune system is related to fertility issues and I just wish more research was being done around this. Thank you for posting, it’s also really nice, and encouraging, to hear your happy ending! Thank you. Jessica x
I think fertility has been declining over time and it has been projected to decline even more (read a WHO report about it a few weeks ago). The causes are e.g. pollution, proximity to use of certain fertilisers, stress, increase time at the computer, lack of physical activity, bad diets (incl. at times bad products in the food we buy)…. I am sure age counts but I really think there are bigger problems. I know so many 40 year old women that got pregnant in no time when I was struggling at 30. Of course I’m a bad example for comparison but still..
Thanks, as ever, for your insightful comments. It would be brilliant if we could begin to widen the discourse on this. Like, you I’ve no doubt that in time the environment will prove a factor. It actually makes me wonder whether it’s evolution’s way of telling us we don’t need anymore children in the world….
that’s an interesting topic too. I’m working on a project on air pollution and some of the experts I talked to argue that there are benefits to air pollution in terms of decreased births from decreased fertility (in a world in which population is growing too fast compared to the available resources). I don’t agree with this argument because I’m against environmental degradation. It’s a complicated and interesting discussion.. to which in my opinion you can add the question on whether countries should support large families…
Absolutely. The more we think and talk, the more a minefield it all becomes but it’s great to get the grey cells going at the start of a new week. Hope you have a great one. I’ll be thinking of you. Jessica x
I wonder about all the chemicals we’re exposed to. Check out the EWG’s video, “Ten Americans.” That, and plastics and pollution, must have some effect on us…
I also think there’s something to be said for an over-populated planet and Mother Nature trying to balance the ecosystem.
And then there are folks like me with wonky chromosomes, proof of evolution and Mother Nature playing around to see what happens!
Will definitely check out that video and I love your comments about Mother Nature trying to balance out the ecosystem and playing around. In a weird way it kind of makes me feel better about the whole thing, a reminder that we are all part of a continuum that is much bigger than our individual selves. Makes me want to make the most of whatever I’ve got! Thank you!
I think in my case it will be stress. Women take on roles which in the past only men did. I think our diets have changed over the years and our average weight has crept up. Processed foods and unhealthy lifestyles is my hunch
Thanks so much for commenting. Definitely feels like stress is a major hunch for many but I’m sure there’s something in the others you mention too. I’m feeling like a detective with this blog post. It’s great! Jessica x
Thoughts from a demographer’s daughter: Do those stats (78% v. 84%) refer to all women of those respective age groups trying to conceive, or women trying to conceive for the first time? Statistics Canada (via my dad) informs me that the likelihood of being able to conceive a second child in your late 30s are far higher than your likelihood of conceiving a first. And of course, if you don’t conceive within year 1, you have a much longer window to try various options if you are younger. So I’m continuing to find Allsopp’s argument more convincing than i’d care to admit…
Good point as always! It does seem to be easier for a lot of women to conceive a second time so I definitely think there’s something in that…and yes, starting earlier at least means there’s more time to sort out any problems that arise especially as it seems to take at least two to three years for couples experiencing problems to get off the starting blocks. Lesley Pine wrote a great comment on this on my blog last week.
My hunches, after talking to hundreds of women over the last 8 years, are nutrition and stress. And not stress in a “just relax and you’ll get pregnant” kind of a way. Stress in a profound-long-term-banjaxing-our-hormones-and-causing-all-sorts-of-ill health kind of a way. More and more recently I’ve found myself reading about the work of the people at the forefont of functional medicine like Dr Mark Hyman – he’s banging on about poor nutrition and stress causing diabetes, heart disease, asthma, allergies, inflammation leading to cancer etc etc etc and I just bet that infertility is in that mix too. .
I bet it is. Just wish we understood more about it…stress, like infertility, seems to be an invisible disease. Looking forward to hearing more about Mark Hyman. Jessica x
While I think that environmental factors are important, in my case, my fertility did literally fall off a cliff with age. I conceived my child the first month of trying when I was almost 39. At the time, I had regular cycles and all the signs of fertility. After giving birth, I never went back to normal : irregular cycles, constant PMS symptoms, and finally night sweats. Needless to say, I did not conceive again and I did not respond to IVF. So that’s quite a sudden and sharp drop. Of course, my first child may have been a miracle, but given that I had no signs of perimenopause back then, I doubt it. I’m also not so convinced about the stress argument – with the stories I’ve heard from my parents and grandparents, do people really believe that modern life is more stressful? Different sources of stress, maybe, but more stressful?
Excellent point and thanks for commenting. It’s great to have the debate and so true what you say about our parents/grandparents generation – many of them lived through WW2! Personally I don’t think stress, whatever it is, can be the only issue but I do think it’s probably in the mix. Jessica x
It’s impossible to know whether this optimistic sounding statistic is more truthful than the anecdotal experiences of most people – and that’s before thinking about all the other studies that show clearly that fertility drops after 35. I’m not clear what the journalist’s purpose really is other than to promote false re assurance to women in their late twenties who she thinks may have fallen under the sway of the idea that fertility does not last forever. Statistics like the bible can be quoted to any purpose but an individual woman is an individual woman not a generalised social outcome and if you can’t conceive you can’t conceive and no upbeat survey will change that. I realise that conceiving and carrying a child is main purpose of IVF treatment but there is whole range of age related difficulties that come with older aged pregnancies. I have two children, one at 39 and one at 41 so about as late as you can get naturally. One of my children is disabled and so I have spent a lot of the last 10 years in the special needs world and I have been really taken aback to see just how high the percentage of older parents there are when children are disabled. But reality check, the three main causes of disability are degraded genetic material, problems in the pregnancy and problems at delivery. Unfortunately all of these factors rise dramatically with both paternal and maternal age. I personally have never met young parents of a disabled child though obviously they do exist. Anyway I hope this is not too depressing and I was 2 years older when I had the non disabled child so sometimes you can ‘beat the game’ as he puts it but all that Kirsty is trying to do is give women awareness of what the real choices are. What she is saying may not sound as good as what the journalist is saying but you cannot make important life decisions based on what sounds good at the time. Sometimes it’s the negative stuff that is true.
Not depressing at all, it’s a brilliantly made point. We’ve all got to tell it how it is so the debate can be had and choices can be made. Thank you for commenting! Jessica x
We also have to bear in mind that life expectancy was around 50 until approx 1920’s so we are in quite new territory where we are having babies around the age our grandparents would have been putting the finishing touches to their wills !
Absolutely. Just goes to show it seems to be a very modern problem! Jessica x