New research published in the Oxford Human Reproduction Update has found that men are losing sperm count at an alarming rate – but only in the Western world. Angela Waters talks to reproductive specialists to see what is happening to these males, how worried they should be and what can be done to stop it.
When you think of Western men in the ’70s, certain attributes come to mind – sideburns, chest hair and belted sweaters, but they may have also had twice the sperm count of today’s generation of males.
A team of researchers has compiled worldwide data from sperm samples ranging from 1973 t0 2011 to find that men in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand have more than halved their sperm counts, while their counterparts in other regions remain stable. Although the current average does not yet put men at great risk of being infertile, the trend shows no signs of slowing down and could lead to widespread problems.
“If the results are real, it could be very concerning for men’s fertility,” Peter Schlegel of the American Society for Reproductive Medicines told Highsnobiety. “Sperm levels could drop to severely low levels that could affect the majority of men in 30-40 years.”
For Schlegel and other reproductive experts, the most concerning part of the study is that it shows no leveling off of the sperm reduction effect.
The study authors call their findings a “canary in the coal mine” for men’s overall health.
Sperm count plays a role in the male body beyond fertility and has been linked to an overall increase in morbidity and mortality when numbers are off.
The study singles out pesticides, diet, stress and heat among the possible factors contributing to the lower sperm counts among Western men versus their non-Western counterparts, but for Schlegel, the most likely difference between the countries where men are losing sperm and those who are not is obesity.
“We know that obesity is linked to lower sperm counts,” he said. “It is less likely to be environmental factors like plastic or pollution because these would not have shown to be consistently progressive.”
Frequent Ejaculation Could Be Throwing off the Numbers
Although experts are confident that the findings represent some of the best data available on male fertility, not everyone thinks that things are actually as grave as they appear.
Stefan Schlatt, of the Westfalia Wilhelms University of Munster, says that the study does not account for differences in time between ejaculations, which is important in building up sperm reserves.
“When your grandfather went in to get a semen count, he would take it very seriously and not have an ejaculation in the 5-6 days leading up to the appointment,” Schlatt told Highsnobiety. “This is quite different from people in the Western countries these days. I believe that the frequency of ejaculations have increased in relation to our grandfathers.”
While not an advisable method of contraception, he added that ejaculating three or more times per day could lower sperm counts to the point where it would be hard to conceive.
This would certainly be an easier problem to fix in contrast to environmental factors such as modern technology or pollution.
Other ambiguities in the data also cause some to question whether or not the findings are reliable. Fertility organizations in the West have yet to observe any significant rise in infertile men.
“There is no current epidemic of men with low sperm counts,” Schlegel said. “These numbers represent the average sperm count, but if this is true then there should be many men below this average that are struggling with fertility.”
Separating Fact From Fiction
While there are a lot of tips and tricks out there for keeping your sperm count up, very few specific aspects of modern living – Western or otherwise – can be singled out as harmful to sperm production.
“The testes are a very delicate organ and many substances or combinations of behaviors could affect their performance,” Schlatt said.
It mostly comes down to two factors: damage to stem cell organs and overheating the groin area.
Schlegel is less worried about the heating effects of laptops and cell phones carried in the front pocket, but he does see sperm counts taking a hit if men sit with their legs together for extended periods of time.
As if we needed another reason to kick cigarettes, Schlatt puts smoking at the top of sperm decreasing behaviors, saying that it not only damages DNA, but it hurts the testes’ ability to function.
Still neither doctor could comment with certainty on how many of the Western lifestyle and environmental factors affect male reproductive health, because that kind of research has yet to be done.
“The funding in reproductive medicine is a big problem, because it is not life-threatening,” Schlatt said. “The public is always very interested but the funding agencies are not as interested.”
He added that infertility is still largely viewed as a female problem because men do not carry children.
But in order to actually get to the bottom of whether Western men are losing sperm or not, and what is causing it, both doctors agree that you need longitudinal studies for sperm count in general, as well as specific risk factors.
“It is quite important to note that the study indicates that something is wrong with our testes and our testes’ function but it doesn’t mean anything beyond that,” Schlatt said.
Now find out which sex positions burn the most calories.
- Words: Angela Waters
- Illustrations: Stephen Cheetham for Highsnobiety