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Health, Lifestyle, and Fertility — in Men

by Jane Wangersky | May 26th, 2014 | Pregnancy

file5051261146469When a couple is trying to conceive and can’t, it may seem intuitive to look at the woman’s health and lifestyle. After all, it’s her body that has to produce the baby. We almost feel as if the man’s contribution is so small that we can overlook the effects it can have. Yet,  it’s a mistake to downplay his role. A third of all fertility problems are due to problems with the man, according to womenshealth. gov. (Another third are women’s problems, and the last third are due either to problems in both partners or unknown causes.) And a man’s fertility can be heavily affected by his health and lifestyle.

Of course, male infertility is a difficult subject, touching on a man’s self-image. Also, there are things we don’t understand about it, such as why some infertile men are at higher risk of early death. (Michael Eisenberg, lead author of the study that found this, asked rhetorically, “Could it be that something about the experience of having and raising kids – even though you may sometimes feel like they’re killing you – actually lowers mortality?”) But it’s something couples may need to talk about when trying to conceive.

A man may be infertile due to health problems beyond his control that affect his sperm or its ability to move. He may have been born this way, or it may have caused by an injury or sickness. It’s not an old wives’ tale about mumps! Though cancer doesn’t affect male fertility, radiation treatment and chemotherapy can.  Toxic substances in the environment can also do damage.

Other factors are more the result of lifestyle choices, like smoking, heavy drinking, drug use, and even obesity. These factors affect women’s fertility too. On the bright side, intensive physical training, which can make women infertile, doesn’t have that effect on men.

To evaluate a man’s fertility, his semen is analyzed for number of sperm, their shape, and how they move. It’s not a pass-fail test. According to the Center for Disease Control, “A slightly abnormal semen analysis does not mean that a man is necessarily infertile.” But it’s necessary information.

Unfortunately for men, fertility treatment for them often requires surgery. If the man is suffering from sexual dysfunction, he may need treatment for that, which can be emotionally painful.

Infertility brings its own pain and difficulties, and the best thing any couple can do is promise to face it together.

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