What is infertility?

Infertility is the inability to conceive a child after 12 months (or more) of regular, unprotected sexual intercourse. If a woman is older than age 35, infertility should be evaluated after six months. Infertility may describe both a woman who is having difficulty conceiving as well as a woman who experiences recurrent miscarriages.

Infertility rates have increased over the years. At least 10% of couples in the United States are affected by infertility. This is mostly due to an increase in the age of the couples trying to conceive. Infertility can be caused by problems related to the man or the woman, or infertility can often be “unexplained.”

What is a risk factor?

A risk factor is something that makes a person more likely to develop a condition. Some risk factors, such as age, cannot be changed. Other risk factors, such as lifestyle choices, can be changed.

What are risk factors for infertility?

  • Age: A woman's fertility gradually declines with age and this decline becomes more pronounced in her mid-30s. As a woman gets older, the number and quality of her eggs decrease. Men over age 40 are also less fertile than younger men.
  • Tobacco and alcohol use: The use of tobacco or alcohol by either a woman or a man lessens the chance of achieving a pregnancy. It also has a negative impact on how effective fertility treatments are. Women who smoke have a higher rate of miscarriages and tubal pregnancies. Both alcohol and tobacco use can result in a low sperm count in men.
  • Body weight: The chance of infertility is increased if a person does not lead an active lifestyle, is overweight, or is too thin. In men who are above their ideal weight, sperm counts and testosterone levels may be lower. Women are also at risk of fertility problems if they have an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia or if they follow a very low calorie or very restrictive diet.
  • Exercise: Not enough exercise contributes to obesity, which increases the risk of infertility. In less common cases, frequent exercise that is strenuous and intense can affect a woman’s ovulation patterns. This can lead to a lack of menstrual cycles (monthly periods).
  • Irregular periods: Irregular menstrual cycles are more common in women who are underweight or overweight. It is important to try to achieve a normal weight via healthy lifestyle changes, and see a gynecologist.
  • History of sexually transmitted infection: Condoms can help preserve future fertility by preventing infections, especially with new partners. Also, talk with your partner about being tested for sexually transmitted infections prior to becoming sexually intimate.

What can I do to improve fertility?

  • Maintain a healthy weight and avoid extreme diets.
  • Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet.
  • Avoid illegal drugs and tobacco.
  • Consume alcohol in moderation or avoid it entirely.
  • Get regular exercise at moderate level of intensity.
  • Avoid exposure to industrial or environmental toxins.
  • Avoid medicines that may affect fertility; check with your health care provider.
  • Limit how much caffeine you consume.

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