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As delay in childbearing increases, UBC study shows people lack knowledge about fertility

UBC Clinical Psychology Professor Dr. Judith Daniluk conducted the fertility awareness survey that revealed that people lack knowledge about fertility. Photo from Fleishman-Hillard Communications.

British Columbians are increasingly pushing back parenthood to their thirties and forties, but many are doing so without the proper facts on fertility, according to a new study.

The National Fertility Awareness Survey, conducted by UBC Clinical Psychology Professor Dr. Judith Daniluk, shows that although most people are aware that a woman’s fertility decreases with age, there are many misconceptions that could be influencing their decision to wait before trying to conceive.

Statistics Canada data shows that the average age that women are having their first child is now 30-34, compared to 25-29 in 1991. The birth rate for women in their early 40s has also doubled from 1988 to 2008.  

There are many factors involved in deciding when to have children (such as finding a suitable partner, career establishment and finances) and getting acquainted with fertility facts is an important step in the decision-making process.

“Depending on your circumstances, it’s a shame to assume that you can delay and still have kids when you’re ready, when in fact, fertility does decline,” said Daniluk.

There are also health risks associated with later age pregnancies, including higher rates of gestational diabetes, miscarriage, pre-eclampsia, Caesarean section deliveries and premature births, according to Daniluk.

But women aren’t the only ones who need to be concerned. Men who father children in their late 40s and above, have children with higher rates of schizophrenia, autism and other learning disabilities.

Not only is the man’s age connected to the health of a child, it’s also an important factor in getting pregnant — something that more than half of the respondents didn't know.

The survey, conducted with about 3,300 childless women and 600 childless men, reveals that only 41 per cent of men and 43 per cent of women were aware that a man’s age is significant to the couple’s chances of conceiving.

And while most men and women put their faith in the idea of in-vitro fertilization for future worries, Daniluk warns that it is not always the perfect solution. Not only does it cost about $10,000 per cycle, the woman’s age also plays a role in the success of the treatment so IVF does not compensate for age-related fertility declines, she said.

Ninety-one per cent of women and 92 per cent of men mistakenly believed that IVF can help women have a baby using her own eggs up until menopause, while only 51 per cent of women and 47 per cent of men were aware that a woman can significantly increase her fertility by freezing eggs before age 35.

Fifty-one per cent of female respondents and 66 per cent of male respondents were also unaware that a woman’s age equals the age of her eggs.

“Women go, ‘Okay, I started menstruating when I was 13 and now I’m 30, so they must be 17-years-old.’ No, you’re 30, so too are your eggs,” said Daniluk.

Another common misbelief was that a woman’s health and fitness levels are a more significant sign of fertility than her age. Eighty-one per cent of men and 73 per cent of women were wrong.

“Health is not equated with fertility when it comes to age perse,” said Daniluk. “That being said, if you are in good health, you have a much better chance of negotiating a pregnancy at 45 than if you’re not in good shape or good health... but you can’t compensate for age-related declines because 40-year-old eggs are 40-year-old eggs.”

Daniluk wants to help inform potential parents with her website My Fertility Choices, and hopes the information provided will encourage them to think about what they need to be aware of and what they need to do if they want to have a child in the future. The site also includes sections on decision making, relationships and readiness.

“Take a look at testing your fertility now, not when you’re forty,” said Daniluk. “If your fertility is fairly decent at this stage and you’re probably looking at five or six years before you’re ready, then think about preserving your fertility by freezing your eggs or sperm because at 40, if you’re working with 32 year old eggs, you’re going to have a much better chance of success.”

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