Less than five per cent of women over 40 can use their own eggs in IVF. Is Hol­ly­wood pro­mot­ing a fer­til­ity myth for older mums? By Anna Magee

Sunday Herald Sun - Body and Soul - - REPORT -

Me­lanie Bel­horn* was never in a hurry to set­tle down and have a baby. There was plenty of time, she thought – look at celebri­ties such as Holly Hunter and Jane Sey­mour who have ba­bies well into their 40s.

At 43, she met her part­ner. They be­gan try­ing for a baby and Bel­horn re­alised how wrong she had been. Af­ter a year, she still wasn’t preg­nant. Her GP said fer­til­ity treat­ment was her only op­tion.

“I called the fer­til­ity clinic and was told: ‘At your age, you will need donor eggs.’ I didn’t even know what donor eggs were.”

Four years later, at 47, Bel­horn fi­nally fell preg­nant with re­peated IVF treat­ments and donor eggs from a younger rel­a­tive. She had spent $28,000.

“I wish I had known ear­lier how dif­fi­cult it is for women to fall preg­nant in their mid or late 40s,” Bel­horn says. “Celebri­ties make late mother­hood look so easy. I thought, ‘Of course I can do that too’.”

Bel­horn was not the only woman who thought she had time to spare. A Fer­til­ity So­ci­ety of Aus­tralia study found over half of child­less women aged 30 to 49 be­lieved they could con­ceive when­ever they wanted to.

Ac­cord­ing to fer­til­ity ex­perts, this is partly due to the fact that women are bom­barded with im­ages of celebrity moth­ers in their late 40s.

Holly Hunter had twins at 47, Bev­erly D’An­gelo con­ceived at 49, Geena Davis be­came a first-time mum at 46 and last year Kelly Pre­ston fell preg­nant at 47. None of these women say they used donor eggs.

While no-one knows what the cir­cum­stances of each in­di­vid­ual preg­nancy are, and it is pos­si­ble for older women to con­ceive nat­u­rally, As­so­ciate Pro­fes­sor Mark Bow­man, med­i­cal di­rec­tor of Syd­ney IVF, says: “In the 25 years that Syd­ney IVF has been op­er­at­ing, no woman has ever taken a baby home at 45 or over us­ing her own eggs.”

Even at 40, the chances of a woman fall­ing preg­nant through IVF us­ing her own eggs are less than five per cent, he ex­plains.

“The units they have in the US aren’t any bet­ter than ours – we use the ex­act same tech­nol­ogy. When I see a celebrity say­ing they con­ceived over the age of 45, in my opin­ion it’s highly likely donor eggs were in­volved.”

It is pos­si­ble some celebri­ties have fallen preg­nant us­ing eggs they had frozen when they were younger, though none of them have ad­mit­ted to this ei­ther.

Pub­lic ex­cep­tions

It is pos­si­ble to con­ceive nat­u­rally over the age of 45, as pub­lic cases such as Cherie Blair, who con­ceived her fourth child, Leo, at 45, or Deb­o­rah Thomas, the edi­tor of the Aus­tralian Woman’s Weekly, who be­came preg­nant for the first time at 45, have demon­strated, but ex­perts stress these are ex­cep­tions to the rule.

“Such cases are very rare,” As­so­ciate Pro­fes­sor Bow­man says. “The trou­ble is, they are also very pub­lic. As a re­sult, while the women I see for IVF treat­ment are of­ten aware that their fer­til­ity de­clines with age, they also point to such cases and say, ‘It can’t be that hard, she did it.’ But it’s rarely made clear in the press that these woman are by far the ex­cep­tion to the rule.”

Dr Gil­lian Lock­wood, fer­til­ity spe­cial­ist and au­thor of Fer­til­ity And In­fer­til­ity For Dum­mies (Wi­ley), says, “Peo­ple are see­ing these Hol­ly­wood ac­tresses giv­ing

birth in their mid-40s. It per­pet­u­ates the myth that if you keep look­ing young on the out­side, you’ll be able to re­verse the changes on the in­side. You can’t.”

Cheat­ing time?

When talk-show host Larry King asked Ch­eryl Tiegs in 2000 if she had used donor eggs to con­ceive the baby she had us­ing a sur­ro­gate mother, the 52-year old said em­phat­i­cally, “No, it’s my eggs and my hus­band’s sperm and they’re our ba­bies. I have been tak­ing care of my­self for so long, I know my re­pro­duc­tive or­gans are much younger than I am.”

Dr Lock­wood says: “Your ovaries don’t know if you have been go­ing to the gym for the last 10 years. Your ovaries don’t know if you have had Bo­tox. Your egg qual­ity de­clines dra­mat­i­cally af­ter the age of 40 and there is noth­ing – other than us­ing donor eggs – you can do to change that.”

One in six Aus­tralian couples will suf­fer in­fer­til­ity and three mil­lion Aus­tralians will take more than 12 months to fall preg­nant. De­spite this, the Fer­til­ity So­ci­ety of Aus­tralia study found 43 per cent of women aged 40 to 49 be­lieved they would be able to have a child with­out any prob­lems.

Celebri­ties may have life­styles that are dif­fer­ent from the rest of us, but bi­o­log­i­cally, they are the same, As­so­ciate Pro­fes­sor Bow­man says. ‘The monthly chances of con­ceiv­ing in your early 30s is 20 per cent per month, by 35 it’s about 15 per cent and by 40 that has dropped to 10 per cent. At 45, how­ever, your chances of con­ceiv­ing a baby us­ing your own eggs are al­most zero.”

Egg do­na­tions

For most women whose 40plus eggs are no longer vi­able, their only chance of fall­ing preg­nant will be through the use of a younger egg donor.

In Aus­tralia, egg do­na­tion – which is still rel­a­tively un­com­mon but on the rise – is done “al­tru­is­ti­cally”. This means it is il­le­gal for donors to be paid or for those seek­ing do­nated eggs to ad­ver­tise.

“As a re­sult, there is a great short­age of donor eggs in Aus­tralia and most women who need donor eggs will re­cruit their donor from close friends or fam­ily,” As­so­ciate Pro­fes­sor Bow­man says.

No magic bul­let

So is there a magic bul­let that can re­store the health of our eggs?

“Poor life­style choices, cig­a­rette smok­ing, poor diet and stress will make fer­til­ity de­cline faster,” As­so­ciate Pro­fes­sor Bow­man says. “But noth­ing will re­store hun­dreds of thou­sands of years of evo­lu­tion­ary de­vel­op­ment. Women are born with all the eggs they’re go­ing to have and the re­pro­duc­tive qual­ity of those eggs will de­cline with age. Go­ing to the gym won’t re­store the age of your eggs. That’s the bi­o­log­i­cal re­al­ity.”

Bel­horn says: “There is a con­spir­acy of si­lence when it comes to the use of donor eggs by celebri­ties. I have not heard one fa­mous woman ad­mit to hav­ing used donor eggs to fall preg­nant and I now know that, sta­tis­ti­cally speak­ing, many of them may have. It’s frus­trat­ing, a bit like when celebri­ties say ‘Oh, I never ex­er­cise, I eat McDon­ald’s ev­ery day and I am still a size zero.’ It’s pa­tro­n­is­ing.” * Name changed

Kelly Pre­ston fell preg­nant in 2010 at 47 with her third child Mar­cia Cross had twins through IVF in 2007, at the age of 44

Jane Sey­mour had twins in 1995 af­ter hav­ing two chil­dren in her 30s + For treat­ments that in­crease your chances of con­ceiv­ing go to bodyand­soul.com.au Geena Davis had her first child in 2002, then had twins in 2004

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