Her side of the story

When it comes to female fertility, the term ‘biological clock’ has long been used as a sweeping statement to account for the fact that fertility decreases with age. This over-generalisation has not only led to a gap in knowledge, but has also served to undermine the other significant issues and factors that need to be addressed when considering fertility.

In 2016, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (RCOG) surveyed around 1,000 young people from across the UK about fertility. Of those surveyed, 80% of both boys and girls believed women’s fertility only starts to decline after the age of 35. In reality, female fertility starts to decline gradually from the late 20s as the number of eggs a woman is born with are lost progressively over time.

Perhaps it’s no wonder that young people are confused when the national statistics show that more babies in the UK are born to women aged 30-34 than any other age group. In addition, fertility rates for women aged 35 to 39 and over 40 have trebled in the past 15 years. This is, in part, thanks to advances in fertility treatments, but whilst assisted conception such as IVF can help many couples to have much longed for children, the success rates remain much lower for women in their 40s than in their early 30s. IVF is not a miracle worker and couples need to be aware of that.

Over the past decade the age at which a woman has her first child has risen from 24 to 28.5 years of age in the UK as socio-economic pressures of developing careers and establishing relationships have changed. Whilst society has evolved, Professor Lesley Regan, a fertility expert and Vice President for Strategic Development at the RCOG believes it’s important to remember that our bodies have not.

“The wide range of social, professional and financial factors influencing the increasing age at which women are having their first baby is unlikely to be reversed dramatically, but it’s important that both men and women are aware of when male and female fertility starts to decline,” says Prof. Regan.

“We also believe more should be done as a society to help people who would like to start a family earlier, for example, maternity pay, job security for women with young children, access to flexible working and the cost of childcare are all prohibitive factors to having children sooner.”

His side of the story

With Rolling Stones Mick Jagger and Ronnie Wood both recently fathering children at the ages of 73 and 68 respectively, you’d be forgiven to believing that age had little influence of male fertility. The majority of boys surveyed by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (RCOG) seemed to think the same. In fact, substance abuse was a considered by most to be a more significant factor affecting male fertility, than age. Whilst abuse of drugs, alcohol and steroids do affect fertility, age remains the most common factor for both women and men.

‘Baby talk’ is never going to be a popular topic with teenage boys, but Professor Adam Balen, Chair of the British Fertility Society, fears that unless more is done to educate young people now we will be denying them the right to information that will enable them to make informed decisions in the future.

 “The findings of this survey confirm our fears that many young people encounter few opportunities to learn about their reproductive health until they try to conceive. One in six couples experience difficulties in becoming pregnant and the associated emotional and physical impacts cannot be underestimated,” says Prof. Balen.

“Our aim is to ensure that the knowledge components of sex and relationship education not only cover how to avoid pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, but also include information about fertility to help people plan. It should be choice not chance – we want to enable young people to make informed choices about pregnancy, whether that choice is to start a family or not.”

Dr. Chris Wilkinson, President of the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare and a consultant in sexual and reproductive healthcare is urging governments to continue extending the remit on the sexual health curriculum to include fertility. Boys in particular seem to lack knowledge about fertility and reproductive health, which needs to be addressed.   

“We strongly urge governments across the UK to improve the quality of sex and relationship education so young people leave school armed with the necessary facts about not only safe sex, contraception and consent but also fertility and reproductive health,” says Dr. Wilkinson.