Men Need To Think More About Fertility — Even If They’re Not Considering Fatherhood
Sperm counts are plummeting yet infertility is rarely considered a men’s issue. Here’s why that needs to change, and how at-home tests may help.
One in eight couples struggle to conceive, and in about half of these cases, male infertility is the cause. So why do some men drag their feet when it comes to getting tested?
“It’s the big question,” says Dr. Daniel B. Shapiro, medical director at Reproductive Biology Associates, an in-vitro fertilization clinic in Georgia. “The idea that the male has anything to do with fertility was previously rejected for narrow and selfish reasons — namely, sexism.”
This chauvinistic attitude ends up hurting men’s ability to take their fertility into their own hands. While many couples get tested together, others balk. A 2017 study from the UK followed a small group of men experiencing infertility and found that all of them had delayed seeking professional help, even though they wanted to be fathers.
“It’s about their manhood. I have male patients say to me, ‘I didn’t want to get checked because I didn’t want to know.’”
The men said they didn’t consult healthcare professionals because they had a hard time coming to terms with the idea that their fertility was the problem. “It can be hard to get men to come in and get their semen tested,” says Dr. Sarah Vij, male fertility specialist at the Cleveland Clinic. “It’s about their manhood. I have male patients say to me, ‘I didn’t want to get checked because I didn’t want to know.’”
This mindset can have dramatic consequences. Vij recalls patients waiting months, even years before some men agree to have their sperm tested, costing the couple time, stress, and resources.
For men, thinking about fertility has never been more relevant — or more critical. Male sperm counts have declined by over 50% since the 1970s, according to a 2017 study. While the causes are not entirely clear, environmental factors and lifestyle changes are likely to blame: Drug and alcohol abuse, smoking, emotional stress, and a poor diet combined with lack of exercise have all been linked to fertility problems.
Even for men who don’t want kids, the data on dropping sperm count is alarming. Having lackluster swimmers may be the canary in the coal mine: A sign that men are getting unhealthier overall. “Fertility isn’t just a man’s ability to have a baby. It’s tied to his overall health and longevity,” Vij says. If a man is in poor health, his reproductive health is most likely poor and vice versa. Men who start paying attention to their fertility often improve their overall health. Vij recalls that some of her male patients struggling with infertility ended up losing weight or quitting smoking in the hopes of having a child.
Greg Sommer, CEO of Sandstone Diagnostics, hopes his company’s at-home fertility test kit, called Trak Fertility, will encourage more men to find out about fertility problems earlier because it removes the embarrassment factor of seeing a doctor.
Sommer’s FDA cleared at-home test analyzes sperm count and semen volume. The man ejaculates into a cup and loads it into a machine that performs the test. Results are provided in under 10 minutes and the website claims the results are as accurate as a lab test. “If we are able to get males to be engaged, it would be a huge win,” says Sommer. “You should tackle fertility as a team, instead of being a his or her issue.” Whether or not men will actually use it, remains a question.
While at-home tests like Trak have the potential to encourage more men to get their sperm analyzed, Vij argues self-administered tests don’t replace a trip to a professional. She is concerned that as these tests rise in popularity, men will exclusively rely on them instead of consulting an expert. Most tests for infertility at the doctor’s office are more holistic and include blood tests and physical exams in addition to sperm health assessments.
Experts also say that testing one’s sperm at home once is not sufficient to determine if a man has fertility issues. That’s because sperm count can fluctuate daily. Everyone has a bad sperm day from time to time. Frequent ejaculation, stress, poor sleep, and diet can temporarily affect a man’s sperm count. So while at-home tests aren’t the solution to diagnosing and treating male infertility, they could be a step in the right direction.