When it comes to conceiving and having a healthy baby, the spotlight has long been on women and what they can do to increase the chance of success.
But scientists and health professionals are starting to focus more on the role of men and people who produce sperm and what they can do to prevent fertility problems, reduce the risk of miscarriage, and improve the chance of a healthy child.
For the first time this year, IVF clinics in Australia and New Zealand have reported data on how often a male problem was identified during IVF treatment. They found that in 2020, one in three IVF cycles involved a male fertility problem, or a combination of male and female infertility.
While the cause of the male problem was unknown for more than 75% of men, some of the causes identified include difficulty getting and keeping an erection (erectile dysfunction), ejaculation problems (such as premature ejaculation or delayed ejaculation), genetic conditions (such as Klinefelter Syndrome), and damage to the testes from cancer, infections or injuries. Some men also needed fertility treatment following vasectomies (a surgical procedure that is a form of contraception).
President of the Fertility Society of Australia and New Zealand Professor Luk Rombauts said the data will help doctors better understand the role of men in conceiving a healthy pregnancy and child.
“In the past the focus of fertility treatment was almost always on the female patient, despite a man being equally needed to create a baby. Now that we are collecting data on the cause of male infertility, we can finally study its impact more closely,” he says.
We know that a man’s age, weight and habits such as drug use can cause fertility problems... However, a lot of men in Australia may not be aware of these things until it’s too late."Dr Karin Hammarberg, from Your Fertility and Monash University
Dr Karin Hammarberg, from Your Fertility and Monash University, said the data should prompt a national conversation about what men in Australia can do to protect themselves from infertility and improve their chance of creating a healthy pregnancy and child in future.
“When it comes to making a baby, the health of a man’s sperm is very important,” she says. “It plays a big role in determining the chance of a pregnancy, the chance of miscarriage and the health of a baby before and after birth.”
“We know that a man’s age, weight and habits such as drug use can cause fertility problems. We also know sexually transmissible infections (STIs) can cause infertility. However, a lot of men in Australia may not be aware of these things until it’s too late.”
Healthy Male Medical Director and male fertility specialist, Professor Rob McLachlan, said although some male fertility problems cannot be prevented, such as those arising from cancer or genetic conditions, men can do things to improve their fertility through lifestyle changes.
This includes quitting smoking, eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, and avoiding recreational drugs including steroids which can stop sperm production.
Prof McLachlan said it takes about three months to make new sperm, so if men want to conceive, it's worth making changes at least three months before they start trying.
“It could improve your chance of having a healthy baby, avoiding fertility treatment, and importantly having a long, healthy life with your child,” he said.
Dr Nicole McPherson, a reproductive health expert who studies sperm at the Robinson Research Institute in Adelaide, said for some men, sexual difficulties and poor-quality sperm are signs of other health problems including heart problems and metabolic conditions such as insulin resistance or type 2 diabetes.
She said the quality of sperm used at conception can also impact on the baby’s growth and risk of diseases later in life.
“Men who carry more fat are more likely to have sperm with higher levels of DNA damage. These same men also tend to have babies with increased fat mass at birth, increase growth rates into childhood and increased fat mass into adulthood,” she says.
“As such, it is important for men to try and be in optimal health prior to conceiving not only for their own health longevity but for the further health of their child.”
So, if you’re planning to conceive, it is worth getting your male partner or your sperm donor to review their preconception health and make healthy changes at least three months before trying for a pregnancy.
Here are 10 tips for men wanting to protect and improve their sperm health from Your Fertility:
This article is presented by the Victorian Assisted Reproductive Treatment Authority (VARTA) and Your Fertility for Fertility Week 2022 (10–16 October). These organisations, together with Jean Hailes for Women's Health and others, form the Fertility Coalition.