Turns out men have a biological clock — and it’s ticking.
A growing number of men find themselves having children later in life as they put off families in favor of careers or enter into a second marriage with a younger woman. And it’s usually the women who’ve been told their biological clock is ticking. They have a certain number of years to conceive a child before they either ‘dry up’ or run the risk of bearing a baby riddled with disease. Men got away with being indestructible sperm banks…until now.
In April, Time magazine noted several studies that observed autism, schizophrenia, low birth weight and stillbirths are linked to aging dads. One of the studies printed in April 2012’s Nature even found that “older fathers are four times as likely as mothers to pass on autism-related genetic glitches, with the risk becoming especially acute after men turn just 35.”
Ajay Nehra, MD, vice chairman of urology, Rush University Medical Center, says men absolutely have a ‘biological clock.’ “As men age, there are changes that alter semen parameters within what we call the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis. So when a 60-year-old remarries and wants to start a family, his semen parameters aren’t going to be the same as they were when he was 30.”
Robert Brannigan, MD, urologist, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, says although there is no clear-cut starting point the ‘paternal age effect’ is apparent in men around ages 35-40. “With each successive wave of sperm production over the course of a man’s lifetime, there’s an increase in mutations,” he explains, “ which have been known to cause cancers, lymphoblastic leukemia, breast cancer, autism, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder in their offspring. Adds Dr. Nehra, “These mutations include sluggish sperm, bi-headed sperm…they may lose a portion of their tail or midpiece and be more fragmented.” However, Dr. Brannigan says mutations aren’t always a bad thing, as they also introduce changes into the gene pool.
For example, just look to evolution and you’ll find a positive outcome from genetic mutation. “Think of the opposable thumb,” says Dr. Brannigan. “Organisms below primate level don’t have this ‘digit’ they can use to grab things. So somewhere along the way, we know opposable thumbs came about as a genetic mutation.”
Aside from mutation, other issues are discovered through semen analysis. “Collection should be done after a period of abstinence for about 72 hours and the specimen should be delivered to the lab 20-30 minutes after collection,” details Dr. Nehra. “We’ll look at volume, shape, morphology and overall motility.”
Dr. Brannigan notes urologists can also test for low testosterone levels since “sperm production is dependent on testosterone, which typically decreases with age.” A Northwestern study published in The Journal of Urology found urologists were giving testosterone to men with low testosterone levels who were trying to achieve pregnancy. “But when it was given as a gel or patch it actually suppressed production of testosterone in the testicles and drove down sperm production,” recalls Dr. Brannigan. “So testosterone is the last thing we want to give an older or infertile man trying to achieve pregnancy. Instead we prescribe medications that drive the body’s production of testosterone to optimize sperm production.”
And while many urologists say there’s no hard evidence linking diet to weak or mutated sperm, both doctors advise men stick to a heart healthy diet. “Other behavioral factors like heavy alcohol consumption, minor tobacco use and a little heat exposure from hot tubs/saunas may also be damaging to sperm production, count, mobility and DNA content,” notes Dr. Brannigan, who also observes some medications may hurt sperm production or interfere with sexual function. “For example, medicine used to treat prostate enlargement can have a direct negative effect on ejaculation; antidepressants can interfere with a man’s ability to ejaculate; and with older males involved in IVF, there’s a great likelihood of issues with embryo development.”
Another common issue we’ve all heard too often of is erectile dysfunction. Believe it or not, octogenarians even head to the urologist to help them recharge those old batteries. They may not be having children, but they’re certainly interested in maintaining a sexual appetite with the help of oral agents (like Viagra), daily injections or penile implants. “In a week alone, I’ve seen a half dozen men in their 80s,” shares Dr. Brannigan.
In the end, men should realize they aren’t invincible – even at age 35 – and consider seeing a urologist as part of their family planning strategy. Better to be safe than sorry. Oh – and one final thought: tick, tick, tick. n