In 1973 the UK entered the European Union, Pink Floyd released Dark Side of the Moon and the Watergate scandal picked up steam. Since 1973, sperm counts have dropped by 52%.
At an average rate of 1.4% a year, the sperm count of Western men has been falling for decades.
It’s a shocking fact and a shocking number. The modern world is supposed to bring more opportunity, more innovation. Instead, we are confronted by an increasingly modern problem. Infertility isn’t a uniquely modern problem, though it is becoming an urgent one.
To our ancient ancestors thousands of years ago the whole process of conception, pregnancy, and childbirth was mysterious. The easiest analogy was the fertility of the earth, of agriculture, and we owe a lot of the language and concepts to that still. The ideas of Mother Earth, and “planting a seed” have been around almost as long as humanity has.
Fertility deities were big business: gods and goddesses that could promote fertility and the getting of many children. Across the world, there are fertility myths, gods, rituals and rites. Independent of each other, from Scandinavia to the Indigenous Australians and the empires in Central and South America.
Childbirth was incredibly dangerous. Plus, the responsibility for fertility solely fell to the woman. Any medical or religious response to a lack of children was centered around her. Male infertility was not considered as a factor.
Treatments for fertility continued to be centered around women and it was viewed as a female “problem” throughout much of history. Even now much of the emphasis is on the woman. However, the facts paint a different picture. The NHS says that 35-40% of trouble conceiving is thought to be an issue with the female partner, and the same 35-40% with the male. The rest is simply unknown. But it shows that the problem has an equal chance of being with either partner and either sex.
The rise of assisted reproductive technology in the 1970s led some people to claim that infertility was “invented” alongside the first “test tube baby.” We know that’s not the case and that attempts at treating infertility have been around for a long time.
Something has happened and has become increasingly more prominent since the 1970s though. Sperm counts have been dropping across the globe. Sperm counts in Western men have halved in the last 40 years. Clearly, male infertility is on the rise and it has led some news outlets to make near-apocalyptic predictions for the future of humanity.
It’s now thought that infertility affects one in 25 men. As many as one in five otherwise healthy young men between the ages of 18 and 25 have low sperm counts that put them at risk of infertility according to Professor Niels Shakkebaek from the University of Copenhagen.
Even the official measurements of male fertility have undergone some massaging. The official definition of infertility in men used to be less than 20 million sperm per milliliter of semen. Now that the average sperm count has dropped to around 20-40 million sperm per milliliter the official designation of low has been dropped too. An official low sperm count has been slashed by a quarter, down to under 15 million.
Using the falling average the official definition of male infertility has been massively changed. Overnight a man could have gone from classified as infertile to average. Clearly, this isn’t based on any science, just on the downward trajectory of male fertility.
Talking about such big numbers on a global scale can be overwhelming. It also blinds us to the very real emotional trauma and difficulties that infertility can cause. Behind all these statistics are real people, wanting desperately to start a family but instead going through invasive testing, expensive medical procedures, and a lot of heartbreak.
The emotional burden falls harder on men than society at large might expect. Difficulty conceiving and a diagnosis of infertility is stressful and upsetting. Men generally feel less able to express their emotions, and much of the focus on infertility is on women. But men also carry feelings of shame, anger, grief, helplessness, and frustration. This can be compounded by feeling they have to suppress these feelings in order to be supportive of their partner.
So why is this happening? What about our modern world has caused this massive drop in male fertility? There are many theories and research is ongoing. No definitive answer has been put forward. Perhaps because there are a number of factors at play, all contributing to an individual diagnosis and the general decline.
There are the obvious variables, like genetic predisposition and pre-existing illnesses or conditions. Layered on top of these hands dealt by fate are many other factors. And most of them have become much bigger issues since the 1970s.
There are environmental factors like pesticides or chemicals in our water and food. Leaked from plastics, introduced by modern farming practices, genetically modified organisms, antibiotics and hormones fed to our meat. In the last few decades, these fields have seen huge changes. These chemicals enter our body through our food and drink and are known to have changed the natural running of the body. They could well be having an effect on male fertility.
Another candidate, becoming more and more ubiquitous since the late 1960s and found in our water supply is the female hormone, oestrogen, from the use of the contraceptive pill. Oestrogen levels have been rising in the water supply as the water is recycled through the sewage system. Oestrogen acts in opposition to testosterone, an essential hormone linked to the production of sperm. The less testosterone is produced, the fewer viable sperm there are.
Also related to the modern diet and lifestyle is obesity. Obesity is described as a modern epidemic, much as male infertility threatens to be. We know that a man’s general well-being, health and fitness, can be linked to his fertility. The health of the sperm can be influenced by the health of the man and weight plays a part in that. Obesity cuts testosterone production, essential for sperm production too.
Stress is yet another lifestyle factor tied to male infertility. It causes and can be caused by trouble conceiving and can affect all areas of life. Too much of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol disrupts the body’s natural functions.
Not only does stress have a physical effect on the body but it can contribute to less of the act of babymaking too. It is often closely intertwined with someone’s health and fitness, causing over eating or a lack of exercise. It can disrupt sleep, which is essential to our wellbeing.
Another modern convenience: mobile phones were barely being developed in the 70s and now they are an essential part of everyday life. The growth of this technology has been unprecedented in such a short amount of time. It also goes hand in hand during this last decade with the blanket coverage of WiFi and devices using wireless technologies.
Increasing numbers of scientific studies and medical research links mobile phone radiation with damage to cells and DNA, including sperm. The radiation that powers our phones and WiFi networks has been described by some experts as “cooking” sperm.
At the same time as all this, it seems that we live in an age of increasing regulation. We expect these concerns to be thoroughly tested and vetted against. That’s not always the case. With mobile phones, for example, there just hasn’t been the opportunity to survey the long-term effects. We don’t fully know the effect of WiFi networks in schools, or what decades-worth of carrying a phone around in your trouser pocket might be doing to your body and your sperm.
One thing is clear, the modern world is not good for male fertility. Sperm counts in Western men have halved in the last 40 years at the same time as many other potential factors have increased. Anyone of these factors and any combination of them could be making the critical difference in the numbers game of male fertility. The good news is that the spotlight is finally turning onto the issue and it’s not too late.
Men may not be able to do anything about their genetics but still, male fertility is robust and is not set in stone. Men can influence their fertility and can start making changes now that will have effects within the next six weeks or so thanks to the regenerating nature of sperm
Lifestyle changes such as exercising more, tackling stress and going organic can turn back the clock on these modern maladies. You can keep the modern gadgetry too, with an anti-radiation mobile phone case.
The modern encroachment of all these infertility factors is avoidable. Modern technology can fight the ill effects of other modern technologies. Research can show us how to take better care of our bodies despite all the modern temptations and a difficult environment. Greater understanding of the impact modern life is having on our planet and our bodies is leading a revolt against intensive farming practices, or against stress. Medical science is tackling infertility in new and exciting ways.
Male infertility is an increasingly modern problem but the solutions are modern too and the modern world gives us the tools to understand and combat the issue.
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