- - Monday, August 7, 2017

This alarming finding was announced last week by an international research team: Sperm counts among men in Western countries have more than halved in the last 40 years.

Infertility is a painful and heartbreaking experience for a couple that wants children. Men, as well as women, suffer when their longing for a child is frustrated. Nevertheless, infertility has generally been thought of as a women’s problem – from the biblical narratives of Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel, through modern dystopian stories like “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Margaret Atwood’s novel, and recent movie.

But now we know that infertility is neither just a family problem, nor just science fiction. It is a widespread and ongoing phenomenon. Male fertility is on the decline.

The international research team that discovered this finding drew on studies conducted from 1973-2011, involving 43, 000 men. When they separated the data based on whether the men were from Western countries – including Australia and New Zealand as well as countries in North America and Europe – or from elsewhere – they found that the sperm count of men in Western countries was declining each year, leading to an overall drop of over 52 percent.  

“The results are quite shocking,” said Hagai Levine, an epidemiologist and lead author of the study from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

It has long been known that Western birth rates are falling, while birth rates in developing or traditional societies are rising. Conventional wisdom attributed the difference to cultural factors, such as the West’s increasing individualism, later marriages, more work/less family time, and the high cost of child-rearing in isolated nuclear families. All these and other cultural factors may certainly be contributing to lowering birth rates, but now we know we need to look more closely at biological factors, too.

What is causing the 40-year decline in men’s sperm count?

That’s still a mystery. No one really has a clue.

Nevertheless, we can speculate. The prescription medications we all take (and are grateful for) are eventually excreted and find their way into the environment. Hormones, taken for contraception and other reasons, are among them. Anabolic steroids taken to stimulate muscle strength and growth can cause the testicles to shrink and sperm production to decrease. Other studies have found that cellphones can reduce sperm count (don’t carry it in your pants pocket), as can e-cigarettes, tobacco, alcohol … and a host of other factors, including obesity.

Severe and prolonged emotional stress, including worry about fertility, might interfere with hormones needed to produce sperm.

So with sperm counts dropping every year, are we on our way to extinction? The scientists interviewed by various news outlets say no. We will, however, probably continue to see an increasing number of couples having trouble conceiving.  

Although it is reassuring to know that these findings don’t place us on the brink of extinction, decreased sperm count is not just a reproductive issue. It is also a public health problem. Previous research has found decreased sperm count to be associated with increased risk for premature death. So it is imperative that we find out what is going on.

The fact that we don’t know what is causing the declining sperm count is worrisome, and should spur support for further research. Denial and delay are not our friends.

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