Western men have suffered a 50% decline in sperm count over four decades

Sperm counts — measured by sperm concentration or total sperm count — declined by 1.4% per year on average among men from North America, Europe and Australia between 1973 and 2011, a new study published in the journal Human Reproductive Health found. Overall, sperm counts fell between 50% and 60% over those 38 years, with no evidence of a leveling off in recent years. This significant decline in male reproductive health “has serious implications beyond fertility concerns,” it concluded. The researchers analyzed samples from nearly 43,000 men from 185 studies.

“This is a wake-up call to study the causes of this decline, aiming to prevent further deterioration,” says Hagai Levine, the lead researcher and faculty member of the Braun School of Public Health and Community Medicine at Hebrew University-Hadassah in Jerusalem.

Previous studies have linked a lower sperm count with pesticides, heat, diet, stress, smoking and body mass index. “Therefore, sperm count may sensitively reflect the impacts of the modern environment on male health,” the study found. The high proportion of men with concentration below 40 million per milliliter is “particularly concerning” given that sperm count below this threshold is associated with a lower monthly probability of conception. The results suggest an increasing proportion of men have sperm counts below any given threshold for “sub-fertility or infertility.”

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Private companies are increasingly filling the void of infertility coverage because the U.S. health care system doesn’t deem treating infertility — a condition affecting 1 in 8 U.S. couples — under health insurance policies a medical necessity, Sarah Elizabeth Richards reported on MarketWatch in February. There has been a 65% increase in IVF treatments since 2003, according to a nationally representative survey of U.S. adults conducted by “Infertility in America 2015” by the Reproductive Medicine Associates of New Jersey, partly due to couples having babies later in life.

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“Only 15 states require that policies cover any kind of infertility benefits, and only eight mandates include IVF, which fertility doctors regard as the gold standard of treatment,” Richards wrote. Male infertility treatment can range from $1,565 to $4,500.

Infertility is a disease of the reproductive system, according to Resolve, the McLean, Va.-based national infertility association. Almost one-third (30%) can be attributed to male factors and the same percentage can also be attributed to female factors, the association says. In about 20% of cases infertility is unexplained, while the remaining 10% is caused by a combination of problems in both partners. “A man often associates his sense of masculinity with the ability to conceive a child,” it says. “Men may experience profound feelings of guilt, anger, and low self-esteem.”

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