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Are Sperm Counts Declining?

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Declining sperm counts have been in the news in recent years. A notable 2017 study estimated that sperm counts have dropped 59 percent in the last few decades.

Some researchers have pointed to chemicals and pollution as causes. Chemicals that are found in many consumer products, including many toiletries and household items, can affect sperm quality. But not all experts agree that sperm counts or male fertility rates are on the decline.

“It’s controversial as to whether sperm counts are declining or not,” says Nannan Thirumavalavan, MD, chief of Male Reproductive and Sexual Health at University Hospitals Urology Institute. “It could be a reflection of better testing. The way we are measuring sperm counts is much more standardized than it was before. I think the verdict is still out.”

What Affects Sperm Quality

What is clear is that overall health can have an impact on sperm counts, says Dr. Thirumavalavan. “There are more chemicals in the environment, which can affect overall health. Being overweight affects sperm counts, so that could be part of what we’re seeing,” he says.

Another problem is testosterone therapy, which lowers sperm counts. Some men take supplemental testosterone to increase muscle mass or address other symptoms associated with low testosterone.

“Testosterone and anabolic steroids are so prevalent and a lot of guys don’t know that it’s a common cause of fertility issues,” says Dr. Thirumavalavan. “If you take testosterone, your brain tells the testicles to stop making sperm. It almost functions like birth control.”

Illicit drugs, certain health conditions and some medications can also affect male fertility. “By far, we have the most evidence about the harmful effects of smoking. It affects the quality of sperm and lowers the success rate of achieving pregnancy,” says Dr. Thirumavalavan.

Do Certain Foods Improve Sperm Quality?

Leafy green vegetables, walnuts, oysters and other foods have been associated with improved sperm counts. Dr. Thirumavalavan does not recommend any specific foods beyond an overall healthy diet. Exercise and reducing stress can also help support sperm quality.

When to Seek Help

Dr. Thirumavalavan notes that while sperm counts and fertility are related, having a low sperm count does not necessarily mean you can’t get pregnant. A variety of assisted reproductive technologies exist, depending on the nature of the problem. A couple unable to get pregnant should consider being evaluated after a period of time, depending on their age.

“If a female partner is younger than 35 and you’ve been trying for a year with no pregnancy, we recommend seeing your doctor. If the female is over age 35, we recommend evaluation after 6 months of trying unsuccessfully,” says Dr. Thirumavalavan. “We recommend evaluation of both partners at the same time, so the best solution can be identified.”

Related Links

The expert urologists UH Urology Institute have advanced training and expertise in a wide range of urology services and procedures. The Institute’s Male Reproductive & Sexual Health Division offers leading-edge treatments to help restore fertility and sexual health in men.

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