Fertility and age
There is no way around it, we age. With age in both men and women, fertility decreases. Men may still be able to release active sperm well into their golden years, but quality decreases with age, making possible pregnancy an increasingly unlikely possibility.
Women are born with all the eggs they will ever have (estimated at 1 to 2 million). The number of eggs decreases through a woman’s reproductive years (from puberty), released during her menstrual cycle (monthly periods). This is why it becomes increasingly difficult to fall pregnant after ‘a certain age’.
For both men and women, the benchmark age is around 35. Around this period of a person’s life, fertility begins to decline, a stage often referred to as the ‘ticking of the biological clock’. Thus, a person’s age does play a role in influencing the physical aspects of pregnancy.
For women, ‘the ticking of the clock’ can become an ever-increasing background noise in her daily life as her ability to fall pregnant decreases with age.
What are the odds for a woman during the reproductive years of her life?
- In your twenties: Physically speaking, your 20s are your ‘prime time’ for reproduction. Puberty may be the beginning of reproductive potential, but cycles are irregular. By a woman’s 20s, her cycle is generally more regular and her body ideally primed to produce babies. A woman’s eggs are healthy and fresh, and her body is at its most physically fit to handle the changes that come with pregnancy. In your twenties, pregnancy complications, such as miscarriage, are generally at their lowest. Risks are also generally low for having a baby with Down Syndrome, spina bifida and other chromosomal birth defects. Conditions such as preeclampsia (pregnancy-induced hypertension) is, however, higher in a woman’s 20s.
- In your thirties: 35. This is the age many women, particularly those who wish to become mothers, dread. It’s been dubbed the official start of ‘high-risk pregnancies’ as it has been proven that fertility begins to wane around this age. That said, a woman’s ability to reproduce doesn’t suddenly stop. Doctors use this age as an indicator for when to start watching for common pregnancy / fertility – related problems. A woman is still capable of conceiving and carrying to term, as well as having a healthy, happy baby. The conception timeline (time it takes to fall pregnant) may require a little more patience though. Women in their 30s typically need about 3 to 6 months longer to get pregnant than younger ladies. There are risks which do need to be taken seriously though. With a decline in fertility, risks for pregnancy-related health concerns, such as gestational diabetes, high blood pressure, placenta previa (placenta grows near the cervix causing severe bleeding, especially during birth / delivery), increase. Organ and tissue damage from chronic conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure can also cause complications during pregnancy. The risk of Down syndrome babies also increases from around the mid-30s mark. The risk of miscarriage in the second half of your 30s almost doubles what it was in your 20s.
- In your forties: Many women choose to put off starting a family until nearing, or during, their 40s. It is possible to have a healthy pregnancy and baby, but this advanced maternal age comes with risks that no woman should ignore. Difficulties conceiving (naturally and medically assisted) and infertility increases in women during their 40s. For a woman in this decade of her life, health risks associated with being pregnant are similar to those in their late 30s. The main differences between the two decades are the potential effects on a baby. Chromosomal abnormalities increase dramatically, as does miscarriage and Down syndrome. Multiple gestations (the conception of more than one baby) also increase during a woman’s 40s (naturally or with medical intervention). Hormonal changes which naturally occurs during this decade mean that more than one egg during ovulation may be released at a time, conceiving more than one baby. If a woman in her 40s is in good overall health, complications can be significantly reduced and healthy pregnancies and babies achieved.