Fertility Math: It’s 10 Times Harder to Get Pregnant at 43 Than It is at 37

Fertility Math: It's 10 Times Harder to Get Pregnant at 43 Than It is at 37

Empowered women are delaying motherhood to focus on their careers, but at what cost?

Photo: Kristijan Žontar/iStock/Getty Images

Attention Future Mothers: Your new deadline for having a child is age 37.

As if women needed more pressure in their lives, a new study, presented recently at the American Society of Reproductive Medicine’s annual conference, has found that at age 38, the chances of getting pregnant begin to drop exponentially. And by age 43, it is 10 times more difficult to bear a child than it is at 37.

The researchers analyzed data from nearly 200 women to learn how many eggs, on average, it took to produce one healthy embryo. With that information they split the women into age groups to learn how the process was affected. “We learned that after the age of 37 there is a significant increase in the number of eggs a woman would have to generate in order to get one single embryo,” Dr. Meredith Brower, told Yahoo Health.

More specifically, a 37-year-old woman needs to produce about four eggs to get one healthy embryo. Given that a woman typically produces one egg per month as part of the normal menstrual cycle, that’s, on average, four months of trying to get pregnant. By age 43, it takes 44 eggs — or nearly four years — to generate one healthy embryo.

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It’s startling news at time when more and more women seeking higher education, becoming corporate executives, and delaying having their first child well into their 30s. According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 12 women have their first child at age 35 or older, compared to 1 in 100 women in 1970. “Women are now more inclined to be leaders in the workforce, and life gets busy,” said Brower. “As a professional woman myself, I know that there is never a good time to have a baby. There is a lot of pressure to not take time away. Women are meeting their partners later, and everything is getting pushed back.” 

As the realities of the busy professional collide with the risks of delayed motherhood, women are starting to turn to a relatively new procedure: oocyte cryopreservation, more commonly known as egg freezing, a process that involves removing, freezing, and storing a woman’s eggs. When she is ready to become pregnant, the eggs are thawed and fertilized.

A buzz surrounding egg freezing started earlier this month when Google and Facebook announced that costs of the procedure would be covered as part of their employees’ benefits packages. But just a few years ago, egg freezing was considered an experimental procedure and was not available to all women. In 2012, the American Society of Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) removed the ‘experimental’ tag, which opened the option up to the general public.

ASRM only endorses egg freezing for medical purposes, say, for a woman to preserve fertility prior to having cancer treatment that might leave them sterile. But it has become more of a social decision because women are now more aware of the risks of having children after 40, said Dr. Rebecca Starck, director of Regional Obstetrics and Gynecology at Cleveland Clinic. “Women know they shouldn’t completely hold off getting pregnant to the point where it won’t be an option at all,” Starck told Yahoo Health. “For women who are able to choose egg freezing, the pressure is then off. They don’t have to worry about their career or constantly be looking for the right partner.”

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According to Starck, there are minimal risks involved in the procedure, and the eggs remain healthy throughout. “We have found that the frozen eggs are equally as healthy as fresh eggs, and the pregnancy rates in using frozen eggs are similar to fresh eggs,” she said. “They survive the freeze-thaw process very effectively.” That being said, there are no guarantees, just as there are no guarantees with natural childbirth. And the procedure is expensive — ranging between $6,000 and $15,000 — and time consuming, so it’s not the right choice for everyone.

Both Brower and Starck likened egg freezing to an insurance policy, relieving some pressure from their already busy lives. “If a woman is in her early to mid-30s and knows she is not going to have a partner or procreate in the next five to 10 years, then it’s something she should consider,” Brower said. And given the results from her research, sooner is better than later. “It’s best to do it before the age of 38,” she adds. “All of our data is based on averages, so it’s not like something miraculous happens on your 38th birthday, but it is significantly more difficult as you get older.”

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