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Men’s fertility also declines with age — here’s what to know if you’re planning to wait to have kids

An illustration of sperm on a yellow background, with a magnifying glass zooming in on one of them.
Fertility tends to decline from 40 onwards. Home creator/ Shutterstock

While women are often reminded about their “biological clock,” many guys just don’t feel the same pressures when it comes to settling down and starting a family. In fact, a lot of men in their 20s – especially cisgender, heterosexual men – don’t think a great deal about having children or when they might want to have children.

This might be because many people think men have all the time in the world when it comes to having children. Exceptional examples such as Mick Jagger – who had a child when he was 73 years old – are often cited to reinforce this argument. But in reality, there are many things men need to bear in mind when it comes to their fertility and starting a family.

In recent decades we have seen a gradual shift towards more people becoming parents later in life. In England and Wales, both men and women are having children later than ever before in recorded history. Men alone now have children on average aged nearly 34-years-old, compared to around 29-years-old in the mid-70s.

Quarter life, a series by The Conversation

This article is part of Quarter Life, a series about issues affecting those of us in our twenties and thirties. From the challenges of beginning a career and taking care of our mental health, to the excitement of starting a family, adopting a pet or just making friends as an adult. The articles in this series explore the questions and bring answers as we navigate this turbulent period of life.

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There are multiple, complex reasons for this – including young people facing more difficulties buying houses and living in an uncertain economic climate, alongside changes in the way people date and form relationships. Another factor is that both women and men are staying in education longer, and taking longer to establish careers. Alongside this, people appear to feel more pressure to have children at a time when they can give them the “best start” in life.

While some people can have children in their 30s, 40s and beyond with ease, others may struggle. There are often misconceptions that only women face fertility difficulties the older they get but growing evidence suggests that age also affects a man’s fertility, too – from around about 40 onwards. In fact, age has been shown to negatively affect sperm quality, reduce fertility, and carry a greater likelihood of both miscarriage and health conditions in children – particularly autism, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and childhood leukaemia.

But this evidence is rarely talked about – and men often aren’t aware their fertility can decline as they get older. While this is not a reason to panic – arguably the risks still remain low – it is something to be aware of if you are planning to wait to have kids.

Improving your odds

So what can you do then to make sure you have the best chance possible when you do want to have children? There are a couple of factors to take into account.

The first is your lifestyle. Research shows that many different lifestyle factors can affect a man’s fertility. In particular, research suggests avoiding smoking and excess alcohol intake, as well as having a healthy diet and BMI, are important for healthy sperm and for fertility. Men (and women) are encouraged to think about these things – and others such as avoiding tight underwear, drugs and steroids – in their teens and 20s.

A group of young men drink beers in a pub.
Lifestyle factors such as excess drinking can affect fertility. Ground Picture/ Shutterstock

But having a healthy lifestyle is only one part of the equation. Another key part is age. Ideally, you want to try to have children before “fertility ageing” becomes a problem – that is, before age may affect your chance of conceiving or the wellbeing of your children. Although many people believe that men can continue having children well into old age, the evidence shows us that this may not necessarily be true – and may also come with risks. This is why it may be important for more young men to start thinking about whether, when and under what circumstances they may want children, and build these ideas into how they plan and live their life.

Being single is a key reason why both men and women aren’t able to have children at their ideal time – and why some remain childless even if they wanted children. So it’s important to keep fatherhood in mind when navigating dating and relationships. Both avoiding “settling down” or staying with the wrong person for too long can affect your (and your partner’s) chances of finding the right person to have children with in the future.

Fertility isn’t just down to one person. If you do have a partner, it may be important to consider both of your ages and fertility when considering having kids. A woman’s fertility decreases faster than a man’s does, so having frank and honest conversations about if and when you’d both like to become parents may help you avoid future arguments and disappointments.

New technologies continue to be developed which may help people increase their odds of becoming parents in the middle and older age. In particular, egg freezing is a growing phenomenon and some suggest sperm freezing in younger adulthood can help men have children later in life but using the best quality sperm. But just because these technologies may make it possible, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still think about whether and when you want to have children as you begin to plan your adult life.

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