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What You Need to Know About Fertility Treatments: After Age 40

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What You Need to Know About Fertility Treatments: After Age 40

Oct 14, 2021

For women over the age of 40 looking to get pregnant, it is important to start working with a fertility specialist sooner than later. The treatment options available become more limited as we age, so finding the right doctor to help with conception can be a crucial step in your fertility plan. Dr. Kirtly Jones speaks with fertility expert Dr. Erica Johnstone about helping women over 40 become pregnant.

Episode Transcript

Dr. Jones: So you've just done everything you can to get ready to start a family, and now you can hear your biological clock ticking loudly. When should you get help?

You're a 43-year-old woman, and you've heard your baby biological clock ticking. You want to have a baby, and you stopped your birth control, and it didn't just happen. When should you get help?

Well, it depends. Of course, it depends on a lot of things, your health history, and the male part, but actually, we start with your age. And when it comes to this age, sooner is better than later.

We're going to do this in three parts. So if this isn't your age or the age of the person you're worried about, check out our other podcasts because we have done this in three different age groups.

Here in The Scope virtual studio with us is Dr. Erica Johnstone. She's a specialist in reproductive endocrinology and infertility and an associate professor at the University of Utah. Her special techniques for fertility include advanced reproductive technology, some amazing technology that can help people have a family of their dreams who otherwise might not be able to have a family.

She has enormous experience with in vitro fertilization in her clinic and with egg and sperm donations and other advanced technologies. So you're over 40 but not close to 50 quite yet, and you know your biological clock is ticking and you want to have a child. Should you just try for a while or should you try to see someone before you try?

Dr. Johnstone: So I would recommend scheduling an appointment as soon as you start trying. And part of the reason for that is it may take a little time to get that appointment, but we know that for women who are 40 and above, time is absolutely of the essence. And so we wouldn't want women to miss an opportunity to become pregnant because they're unaware of something that may be affecting their chances. So really, the sooner, the better.

Dr. Jones: Right. They might need a little tune-up.

Dr. Johnstone: Exactly.

Dr. Jones: Sooner than later. So who should you try and see, and what will they do?

Dr. Johnstone: So for women over 40, I do recommend seeing a reproductive endocrinologist or an infertility specialist. Now, it is true that sometimes it can take some time to get an appointment, and so it's also a good idea if you have an OB-GYN or can see one quickly, to start with an OB-GYN who can get started in talking to you about your fertility and doing initial fertility tests.

Dr. Jones: Things like sperm count? Or what kind of testing do you think?

Dr. Johnstone: Exactly. So for the male partner, we would do a semen analysis and look at the number of sperm, how many of those sperm are swimming forward, and how many of those sperm have normal head shapes.

For the female partner, we would look at some general health labs. We always want to look at general health and make sure there aren't any important things about your overall health condition, maybe things like diabetes or high blood pressure that can be optimized before you become pregnant.

But then we also look at your menstrual cycles. Are they regular? Are you ovulating every month? We look at your uterus and ovaries for factors that may be making it hard to become pregnant, like certain types of ovarian cysts or fibroids. We make sure the fallopian tubes are open. And then we also look at ovarian reserve, which is looking at whether the number of eggs remaining in your ovaries is normal for your age. Is it higher than average? Or is it lower than average?

Dr. Jones: Most women . . . or I shouldn't say this. Many women have male partners who are about their age. And, of course, some women in their 40s might have partners that are . . . their male partner in their 20s. But it's not uncommon for women in their 40s to have male partners that are in their 60s. Are there any data about men as they get older and their fertility?

Dr. Johnstone: Sure. So men's fertility does decline with age, but at a much slower rate than for women. When women go through menopause, it is extraordinarily unlikely that they would become pregnant naturally again, whereas we know it is possible for men to conceive pregnancies really all the way into their 70s and 80s, but they're more likely to have abnormalities of their sperm.

And then there are certain risks for children born to older fathers, which include neurodevelopmental type diseases. Things like autism and bipolar disorder can be more common in children born to older fathers.

Dr. Jones: So how likely is it that women will be successful having a baby the ordinary way, just trying to get pregnant on their own, when they're, let's say, between 40 and 45 compared to 45 and 50?

Dr. Johnstone: Sure. So for women between 40 and 45, it's actually changing quite rapidly with each passing year. So on average, when we look at large groups of women, of women who want to conceive at age 40, about half will get pregnant naturally. But that decreases quickly to perhaps 20% to 25% by age 42 to 43. And by age 45, it's quite rare to become pregnant naturally.

Dr. Jones: Let's say you're 48. Are there options you should be thinking about from the beginning?

Dr. Johnstone: Absolutely.

Dr. Jones: And the miscarriage rates are higher too. So actually getting pregnant is part of the problem, but staying pregnant is even a bigger problem sometimes.

Dr. Johnstone: Yeah. So as women get into these ages where natural conception is unlikely even with assisted reproduction, the option that's most likely to be successful is using donor eggs. So eggs from a woman in her 20s that will give you a very high chance of being able to become pregnant.

Dr. Jones: Is there any age that's too old?

Dr. Johnstone: This is a really difficult question, and it's one that we're seeing as women in our country and throughout the world continue to become pregnant at older ages.

The risks during pregnancy go up kind of slowly as women get through their early and mid-40s. But by the late 40s and 50s, pregnancy becomes a very high-risk endeavor. As women get into their 50s, if they do become pregnant, a very high chance of having problems with high blood pressure during pregnancy, issues with growth for the baby, potentially serious complications.

And so women who are in their late 40s and 50s and are thinking about pregnancy, we recommend they sit down with a maternal-fetal medicine specialist to really understand these risks for them and what other health conditions they may have that may further increase those risks.

Dr. Jones: Right. There's a famous story from the Bible about Sarah who was 80, I guess. And so I guess I don't . . . When I read that I went, "Yeah, right. That's not going to happen." I mean, I know miracles happen in the Bible, but 80 is really . . . that's not going to be okay.

Dr. Johnstone: No. And I think it's important for people to know when we see women in the media giving birth at very old ages . . . I think the latest I've seen recently was 72. Again, these pregnancies were usually conceived with donated eggs, and sometimes they don't portray just how risky these pregnancies can be.

Dr. Jones: Oh, absolutely. I mean, you see many older movie stars even in their early 60s or their mid-50s who are giving birth and they never tell the specifics because it's a private issue as to where these pregnancies happened, what kind of eggs they were. But whenever I see somebody who's in their early 50s giving birth who's a movie star, I went, "Yeah, right."

Dr. Johnstone: Absolutely.

Dr. Jones: I don't want people to think that that's just an ordinary, common occurrence because then they'll be hopeful, and you don't, unfortunately, know that the person availed themselves of technology right away.

So anyway, as women get closer to the end of their reproductive life, closer to 50, the chances of a successful pregnancy becomes smaller and smaller, and the chances of miscarriage get larger. But there are options that can help you to have the children of your hopes, and we can help.

I really want to thank Dr. Johnstone and all the technologies that she's so good at accessing to help people have their families. And thanks to you for joining us on The Scope.