It’s no secret that modern life has significantly changed the landscape of fertility and pregnancy planning. According to a 2009 Canadian Government Human Resource study, 50% of women who gave birth were 30 years of age or over, compared to 20% in 1974. Increased participation of women in the workforce, demand for post-secondary education, and increased availability (and legalization of) contraception are just a few of the social trends that have impacted the age at which women choose to start a family. With this social change come challenges for the female body, which optimally is designed for pregnancy at the age of 27. As a result women are facing a new set of age-related challenges when it comes to getting pregnant, staying pregnant, and delivering healthy babies.
However, the picture for women 35-39 who are trying to conceive is not as dire as it has been made out to be.
In a 2013 article in The Atlantic, Jean Twenge set out to assess whether the media messages about age and fertility were really representative of the research itself, or whether, as is often the case, the research statistics had been misrepresented. She found a number of flaws, both in the research itself and in the media interpretation of the results. Furthermore, when she dug a little deeper, she realized that many of the popular "facts" about fertility don't actually have any citations to back them up (including The American Society for Reproductive Medicine’s guide).
Twenge also discovered that the:
"widely cited statistic that one in three women ages 35 to 39 will not be pregnant after a year of trying, for instance, is based on an article published in 2004 in the journal Human Reproduction. Rarely mentioned is the source of the data: French birth records from 1670 to 1830. The chance of remaining childless—30 percent—was also calculated based on historical populations."
We're pretty sure a few things have changed since 1830 when it comes to health and medicine!
Furthermore, some of the research Twenge found suggests that the conception rates of women in this age bracket may only be about six percent less than it is for women in their late twenties and early thirties. That's a sharp contrast with the bleak statistics that are often promoted.
Twenge's article also examines some of the design flaws that make research into this area challenging. For instance, older women who have never conceived may represent a disproportionate percentage of those with long-standing reproductive health challenges - challenges that would have impacted their ability to conceive at any stage of their reproductive life.
Infertility rates attributed to age alone may in fact have more to do with pre-existing reproductive health conditions.
The good news is that many of these issues can be addressed when women receive the necessary resources and support. Where age does come in to play is that this process takes time, especially if a woman has been on hormonal contraceptives and the problems have been masked for years.
Fertility rates are usually examined by looking at the number of women who conceive in a year of trying. However, many of our clients have found that it can take one to two years to return to healthy cycling after coming off the pill. As a result, women coming off hormonal birth control - often in their thirties - will account for a large percentage of women who do not conceive in their first year of trying (and thus get included in fertility statistics without necessarily acknowledging the impact of the pill).
While age is one factor in fertility, we never think of it as the determining factor (unless of course a client is perimenopausal and even then it doesn’t mean a pregnancy is ruled out). The biggest factors and indicators of fertility from our clinical experience are history of hormonal contraceptive use, diet, lifestyle, stress-management, and the presence of unmanaged, longstanding health issues (like PCOS, endometriosis, autoimmune conditions, etc.).
The challenge with age and fertility lies less in a woman’s declining capacity to conceive, and more in the amount of time a woman has (or perceives herself to have) to make positive changes to her overall health.
Addressing long-standing reproductive health issues isn't an overnight process - it often involves dietary and lifestyle changes that need to be implemented and tweaked over time. That's why we're so passionate about helping women prepare their bodies for conception at least 2+ years before they want to start a family.
If you're looking to preserve your fertility, our best advice would be to learn how to chart your cycles (we have a number of programs to support you in this process). This will drive home just how delicate our hormones and fertility are - and how precious each daily decision we make is in the overall picture of our health. For more tips on how to boost your fertility, download our guide below.
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Kim & Amy Sedgwick love to discuss sex, periods, and all the other things we’re not supposed to talk about. The co-founders of Red Tent Sisters and ecosex.ca, they’ve been featured in every major Canadian news outlet and have become a trusted resource for women seeking natural (effective!) birth control, a more joyful sex life, and an empowered journey to motherhood.