Put simply, as you get older, the number and quality of your eggs decreases. Unlike men, who continue to produce new sperm throughout their lives, a woman is born with all the eggs she will ever have. While sperm quality (shape and speed) falls as a man ages, there is little effect on fertility or the child until men enter their mid 50s.
Thus, if you are over 35 and haven’t fallen pregnant within six months of trying, we may begin our assessment by checking your ‘ovarian reserve’. There are two tests we commonly use. The first involves measuring the level of anti-mullerian hormone (AMH) in your blood. This hormone is secreted by the cells that surround and protect the eggs, so it gives us an idea of how many eggs you have left (the higher the hormone, the higher the number of eggs you are likely to have left). We can then assess if your egg reserve is about what we would expect given your age. The second test we can use is called an ‘antral follicle count’. An ultrasound is performed (usually in the first week after a period) to look at your ovaries and count the number of follicles (small ovarian cysts containing the eggs that will grow that month). Both tests will help inform our approach to fertility treatment. Unfortunately, neither test tells us anything about the quality of your remaining eggs.
While it may be hard to hear that you are statistically less likely to conceive after the age of 35 than you were in your 20s, the good news is that there are now a number of fertility treatments available to assist couples who start trying for a baby later in life but then find that they’re unable to conceive naturally.
Some of the options that may be presented to you include:
This is a relatively simple approach where we track your menstrual cycle using blood and ultrasound tests. By doing so, we can tell you when you are most fertile (i.e. most likely to release an egg from your ovary), so you can align the timing of sexual intercourse accordingly. Basically, we want egg and sperm to both be in the same place at the same time, thereby improving your chances of fertilisation (i.e. egg meeting sperm and joining to form an embryo). This is a bit like the old TV show ‘Perfect Match’, where one girl (i.e. one egg) has her choice of a few different men (i.e. the millions of sperm present in a man’s semen), but it doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll hit it off with any of them. We are more likely to try this approach first if your AMH test shows that you have a good egg reserve. Note: if you have tried an over-the-counter home ovulation kit, be aware that ovulation tracking in the clinic is more accurate.
If your egg reserve is good, we may use medication to encourage your ovaries to release a small army of mature eggs. Again, sex is then timed accordingly, so a team of eggs and a team of sperm are both ‘hanging out’ in your reproductive tract at the same time – the equivalent of a group date where you just have to wait and see if anyone hits it off! Occasionally, we will also use medication to ‘trigger’ the release of eggs at the optimum time.
If we think there is an issue with sperm getting to where it needs to be in your reproductive tract (i.e. having sex at the right time is not the problem), we may suggest pre-collecting your partner’s semen, so that we can ‘flush’ a large amount of highly concentrated sperm directly into your womb (with a syringe) around the time of ovulation. We may use this approach in combination with ovulation tracking or induction to ensure an egg is also available to meet the sperm.
IVF involves stimulating your ovaries to produce multiple mature eggs, collecting these eggs, then placing them with sperm in a laboratory dish. Ideally, the sperm will then fertilise one or more of your eggs resulting in an embryo/s. One embryo is then placed into your womb in the hope that it snugly implants in the wall of your uterus, leading to pregnancy (any other embryos remain frozen for future use). By placing egg and sperm together outside the body, we help overcome any barriers that may be preventing this process from occurring naturally. Unfortunately, the revolutionary science of IVF cannot make up for the natural decline in fertility that occurs with age, including a drop in egg quality, which means that IVF success rates do tend to drop as women get older.
If you are an older woman undergoing IVF, we may recommend genetically testing your embryos before placing them in your womb to help improve your chances of a successful cycle. You can read more about PGT and NICS elsewhere on our website, but essentially these tests involve checking your embryos for genetic anomalies, so that we can select the embryo with the best potential for development for transfer into your womb. These tests can be particularly helpful for older women because the incidence of genetic abnormalities increases with age, leading to higher rates of implantation failure and miscarriage with IVF. Thus, if we can identify the highest-quality embryo for transfer, we give IVF the best chance of success.
ICSI or IMSI may also be used during IVF to improve your chances of success. Again, you can read about ICSI and IMSI elsewhere on our website, but in general, these techniques help overcome any sperm-related issues that may be impacting your ability to fall pregnant naturally. While sperm ‘problems’ are not necessarily a sign of older age, certain health or lifestyle issues can be more common with age, which may impact the quality and quantity of your partner’s sperm. ICSI may also be used if there are no obvious sperm problems but fertilisation failed during one or more previous IVF cycles (i.e. when eggs and sperm were placed together in a laboratory dish, no pairs came together to form an embryo).
If you’re older and do not succeed with IVF using your own eggs, egg donation from a younger woman may improve your chances of having a baby via IVF. Studies show that if an older woman undergoes IVF using eggs from a younger donor, her chances of having a baby match the donor’s age group. IVF using donor eggs is also an option for women whose ovaries don’t produce any mature eggs despite hormonal stimulation or who have entered menopause prematurely (< 40 years old).
If you are an older, single woman without a male partner but want to try for a baby on your own, donor sperm with the help of IUI or IVF now makes this very possible. However, it’s better to make this decision earlier rather than later, while you are still likely to have a good number of quality eggs. Every year after 35 reduces your chances of having a successful pregnancy, even with the help of IUI or IVF.
If you’re over 35, we advise seeking help from a fertility specialist if you don’t fall pregnant after 6 months of trying. If you’re a single woman over 35 and want to explore the option of donor sperm, we advise seeking professional help as soon as possible, as there can be a wait-list for donor sperm.