How Strong Is Your Sperm?
If you’re over 35, you might not like the answer. But science could help the growing number of men who’ve postponed paternity
to fertility and fatherhood, men tend to think we’re invincible. After all, George Clooney’s produced twin babies in his mid-50s, hasn’t he? Like George, I put off marriage until later in life. I was nearly 40 when I first got hitched, and 42 when I unexpectedly found myself divorced. Three years later I remarried, and not long after the wedding, my 32-year-old wife and I were happily surprised to find out we were pregnant. I say “surprised” because at 45, I knew that fatherhood wasn’t a foregone conclusion for me.
Everyone has a biological clock, and a man’s sperm count and quality diminish
with age, along with his libido. (Sorry, guys. The truth hurts.) Worse, many studies link older fatherhood with such complications as lower fertility, higher miscarriage risk, and an increased likelihood of autism and bipolar disorder in the offspring.
As a chronic worrier, I’ve looked into these issues. After my divorce I even froze my sperm, something I now ardently advise every man in his 20s or 30s to consider if he can afford it. Retrieving sperm is much cheaper and simpler than retrieving eggs: I went to a lab, entered a small room stocked with outdated porn magazines, did my business into a sample cup and handed the goods over to a technician. That’s it. Storage can be pricey, but it’s a small price to pay for peace of mind.
When my wife and I started thinking about kids, I elected to go au naturel. If we ran into problems, I could always retrieve my spermcicles. Luckily, we conceived with sperm that was “fresh, not frozen.”
WHY YOU NEED STRONG SPERM
We’ve heard a lot about the fertility problems of older men and women, but what’s less publicised is the extent to which a man’s diet and health play a role, even when he’s young. Women are consistently educated on smoking, alcohol, diet, vitamins and exercise. Why aren’t men? A man’s habits prior to conception could have a profound impact on his progeny. Researchers know that smoking, a bad diet, lack of exercise and exposure to environmental toxins are all detrimental to a man’s fertility and in some cases may affect the health of offspring.
The upside: there’s new hope that lifestyle changes and other modifications can improve male fertility. These revelations are rooted in a relatively new field of research known as epigenetics.
Epigenetics – a buzzword that’s emerged in the scientific community over the past decade – is the study of how gene expression can be modified through lifestyle changes. While DNA is essentially hardwired code in our cells, epigenetic factors provide the instructions for that code. Think of genes as hardware and epigenetics as firmware. Your environment and behaviour can actually change those instructions over time. Some scientists have also suggested that we could pass on epigenetically modified DNA to our kids and even to generations beyond. The good news is that many of the harmful changes brought on by bad habits may also be reversed through positive behaviour changes – a firmware update, if you will.
Here’s why all this matters: if you modify your behaviour, you can change the DNA you pass down your family tree. When obese men had their epigenetic profiles assessed one week before gastric bypass surgery, one week after and one year after, the researchers found shifts in regions important for neurodevelopment and metabolism. Research also suggests that smoking-related defects in a man’s epigenetic profile can start to mend after he quits. Still more research found that three months of sprint interval training improved “sperm DNA methylation” (the ways genes turn on and off). Changes were seen in genes involved in foetal organ development and even Parkinson’s risk.
The takehome: your general health may be more critical to fertility and healthy offspring than we once thought. The beauty of sperm health is that it can be improved – sometimes quickly – with lifestyle changes. “I can’t say to a woman, ‘Wait two months and your eggs will be better,’” said Dr Aimee Eyvazzadeh, a fertility specialist. “But I can say that to a guy about his sperm.”