Fertility. A subject often perceived by society as a female issue, overlooked by men until reproductive health becomes a problem. But scientists are starting to speak up about sperm counts dropping. Some are using the words “reproductive apocalypse.” Others argue declining sperm counts are nothing to worry about. To counter this, more and more men are turning to freezing their sperm, with fertility startups raising millions of dollars in funding and changing the face of fertility as we know it.
Over the past 50 years, fertility rates in men have seen a dramatic decline. A study published in 2017 in the journal Human Reproduction Update, notes that sperm count in males from North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand have dropped by half since 1973. Although the root cause hasn’t been confirmed, many researchers believe it may be due to social factors, including stress, an unhealthy diet, contact with plastics and heavy metals, and a sedentary lifestyle.
Age is also a factor – and with many couples waiting longer before having children, this could become a bigger contributing issue. “Not only can it take ve times as long to conceive when the male partner is over 45, but the risk of miscarriage is also twice as high, even when the partner is much younger,” explains Geraldine Emerson, lab director at Bourn Hall Fertility Clinic in Dubai. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine and Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology both recommend that men should be under 45 when conceiving. If not, “There is an increased risk of children being born with neurological disorders, such as autism and attention de cit hyperactivity disorder,” Emerson adds.
A possible solution for men worried about their fertility could be sperm freezing. The procedure used to be mostly popular with men undergoing chemotherapy or other compromising medical treatments but today, even professional athletes and celebrities are turning to the freezer in an effort to protect their fertility and broaden their options. “The ideal age for a man to freeze his sperm is between 18 and 39,” says Dr Jane Frederick, a California-based specialist in reproductive endocrinology and infertility. Generally, the process of sperm freezing involves the patient’s health history and physical wellbeing being evaluated. Next, a sample of blood and urine is tested for infectious diseases. Then, samples of semen are collected and checked in the laboratory to count sperm cells and find out how healthy they are, Emerson explains. Frederick continues, “A sample (ejaculate) is mixed with a special media or solution to help provide protection during freezing and thawing. The samples are then placed in special plastic vials, which are coded, and carefully frozen in liquid nitrogen vapor in a secure tank.” It costs between US $350 and $500 for processing, with an added annual fee for storage, which can range from $395.
Labs aren’t the only option available, though. A new at-home fertility kit and sperm storage called Dadi launched in January this year, aiming to reinvent the industry. “We started thinking of ways to make sperm storage affordable, less intimidating, and more personal,” says co-founder and CEO Tom Smith. You can order the kit online for $99. “The kit arrives at the home of the customer, who then deposits his sperm into our specialized cup, which uses a unique preservative that protects his deposit,” Smith explains. “The customer then uses the prepaid packaging to overnight his deposit to our lab where we then store three vials of sperm. Once the kit arrives at the lab, the customer will receive a personalized fertility report, including a video of their actual sperm,” explains Smith. You can then choose to store your sperm for $99 per year.
Dadi is part of a growing industry of fertility technology, which is predicted to be worth $50 billion by 2025. According to Smith, the company is reaching a vast number of men between 17 and 70 and while it’s only available in the US at the moment, there are plans afoot for global expansion. Interest in Dubai has also been piqued. “If I knew it would be this easy, cheap, and private to find out the quality of my sperm, I would 100% do it,” says one 35-year-old. “I’ve never really thought about fertility,” adds his 32-year-old friend. “One day I do want to be a father; not knowing if I’m fertile or not makes me nervous now.”
Even if you’re not planning on becoming a parent, there may be an important link between poor sperm quality and overall health. A 2009 study published by the American Journal of Epidemiology, which followed 40 000 men who were referred to the Copenhagen Sperm Analysis Laboratory, found that, “The decrease in mortality among men with good semen quality was due to a decrease in a wide range of diseases found among men both with and without children. The decrease in mortality could not be attributed solely to lifestyle and/or social factors.” Since then, other associations have printed papers with similar correlations, stressing the need for men to take charge of their fertility, even if it’s just for peace of mind.