The Older Woman and Infertility

Age is an important factor in fertility, and chances of conception decrease with advancing years, usually after the thirties. The reason why fertility decreases with increasing age is the diminished number of eggs left in the ovary.

Most infertility specialists define an older woman as one who is more than 35 years, but this is an arbitrary number. A woman’s fertility does not fall off at a particular age, but starts declining gradually after the age of 30.

After 35, the drop is fairly dramatic; and after 38, it’s even more so. However, there is no magic number at which fertility disappears and this decline is a progressive irreversible process.

In the past, it was assumed that as the woman got older, her entire reproductive system started failing. However, today we know that the uterus and the fallopian tubes remain relatively unaffected by age; and that the reason for the decline in fertility is the diminished number of eggs left in the ovary.

Every girl is born with a finite number of eggs, and their number progressively declines with age. A measure of the remaining number of eggs in the ovary is called the “ovarian reserve”; and as the woman ages, her ovarian reserve gets depleted. The infertility specialist is really not interested in the woman’s calendar (or chronological age), but rather her biological age – or how many eggs are left in her ovaries.

Various tests have been described, to measure the ovarian reserve, so that we can determine which patients are good candidates for treatment.

These tests are based on measuring the FSH level in the blood; and include a basal (day 3) FSH level. A high level suggests poor ovarian reserve; and a very high level is diagnostic of ovarian failure.

A test that can provide earlier evidence of declining ovarian function is the clomiphene citrate challenge test (CCCT). This is similar to a “stress test ” of the ovary; and involves measuring a basal Day 3 FSH level.  If the sum of the FSH levels is more than 25, then this suggests poor ovarian function, and predicts that the woman is likely to have a poor ovarian response (she will most probably grow few eggs, of poor quality) when superovulated.

Another test which has been recently developed is the measurement of the level of the hormone, AMH in the blood. Low levels of AMH (which are produced by “good ” follicles) suggest a poor ovarian reserve. However, just because a test result is normal does not mean that the quality or number of the eggs produced will be good – the final proof of the pudding is always in the eating ! I

Many women in their late 30s and early 40s have postponed marriage or childbearing to obtain their education, establish themselves in careers, and become financially secure. These aspirations frequently have worked against the decision to have children. The passage of time, however, alters the way many women feel about motherhood by changing their perceptions about themselves as well as about the world around them. Additionally these changes may also have to do with having a new sense of maturity as well as a feeling of accomplishment. Thus, as women and men-feel more secure about themselves, their feelings and ideas about children and parenthood may also change.

Men and women in midlife, who have made the decision to have children, may find to their dismay that they are frequently disillusioned by the inability to conceive or by recurrent miscarriages. For women, the realities of the biologic clock cannot be overlooked. At this point, many couples are faced with dual crises which can compound their problems – infertility, as well as a midlife crisis – the developmental life changes that normally occur in the middle years.

As women reach menopause, they begin to realize that the option of conceiving and bearing a child is closed to them. Just as the array of other life choices begins to narrow, the loss of this ability to choose to have a child can result in sadness and deep disappointment. The realization of this “missed opportunity” can also lead to self-recrimination and depression.

A very effective option for older woman whose own eggs do not grow well is that of using donor eggs. Using donor eggs dramatically improves pregnancy rates. The good news is that success rates with donor egg IVF  are very high!

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