Oct 7, 2021

Dr. Jones: So you've done everything you can to get ready to start a family, and now it didn't just happen. When should you get help?

You are a 38-year-old woman and you've been trying for a while to get pregnant. You stopped your birth control, and it didn't just happen. When should you get help? Well, it depends. Of course, it depends, and it depends on a lot of things -- your health and history and the male part of getting pregnant part of the business. But we usually start with age.

And we're doing 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.

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.

So let's say you're between 35 and 40, maybe you're 38, and you've been trying to get pregnant for a couple of months and you're a little worried. You've been reading ladies' journals and you know the clock's been ticking. When should you get help? And does the age or health of your partner make any difference?

Dr. Johnstone: Absolutely. So for sort of the typical woman between the ages of 35 and 40, we usually recommend trying for about six months before you seek help. Now, who's the typical woman? This is a healthy woman who generally has regular periods coming about every 25 to 35 days, and a woman who doesn't have serious underlying health conditions.

We would think about seeking help earlier in the case of serious underlying health conditions, irregular periods, or a woman who has previously been treated for cancer with chemotherapy or radiation.

Then when we think about the partner. Some of it, we think about some of the same key things. Generally, six months, but reasons to seek help sooner would be if he has been treated for cancer with chemotherapy, radiation, if he's had testicular cancer even that was treated surgically, if he has other serious health problems, particularly if he has other serious health problems that may be affecting his erectile or ejaculatory function. Again, these would all be reasons to seek help sooner than six months.

Dr. Jones: Who should you see to get help and what will they do?

Dr. Johnstone: In this age group, some women may choose to start with their general OB-GYN for their evaluation, but many women will choose to start with a reproductive endocrinologist. And one of the main reasons for this is that . . . It's important to know for most women between 35 and 40, they will be able to successfully get pregnant, but time is more of the essence for women between 35 and 40.

It could hurt to lose time if you spend several months with your OB-GYN, then get a referral to a reproductive endocrinologist, and potentially it takes another couple of months to be seen. So again, many women in this age group will start with a reproductive endocrinologist.

Those early visits will involve a very thorough evaluation. Key pieces of this evaluation will be asking you a lot of questions about your menstrual history. If you keep menstrual journals, it's wonderful if you have them available for your visit. A very detailed look at your medical history, medications you're taking, surgeries you've had, lifestyle habits, things like alcohol, tobacco use, exercise, etc.

For a male partner, we would look at the same things, medical history, surgical history, key lifestyle factors, and factors affecting sexual function. Then as we go into evaluation, we would start for the male partner, typically, with a semen analysis where we would ask him to give a sperm sample. And then we would look at the number of sperm, how many of those sperm are swimming forward, and how many of those sperm have normal head shapes.

Dr. Jones: So reproductive endocrinologists aren't completely common. There are many people who might be listening to our podcast who live in towns that are not big metropolitan areas.

And so sometimes a reproductive endocrinologist is a long ways away, and that sometimes going to be difficult for people to pack up and drive three or four hours to see somebody. And that could be stressful.

So does stress increase difficulties getting pregnant? I just thought I'd throw that in there because some of us are really stressed out.

Dr. Johnstone: Absolutely. So there've been a lot of studies on this subject and they've been mixed in their findings. So I wish I could say stress has no effect at all. I couldn't say that, but I can absolutely say that stress is not a complete block to pregnancy.

And so I recommend to anyone who's trying to conceive to look for ways to reduce and manage their stress. But the number one reason to do that is because it can take time to get pregnant and we never know how long it's going to take.

And so, for your overall health and for the health of a relationship, it makes sense to try to find ways to manage and reduce that stress. But know that it's okay that there's stress. And the fact that you're worried about this, and the fact that it's hard to try to conceive doesn't mean that you won't get pregnant.

Dr. Jones: I remember a study years ago that just getting an appointment to a reproductive endocrinologist, to a referral fertility center, increased the chances of getting pregnant in the next six months. So that was just people who got an appointment and it was four or five months away compared to people who just tried on their own.

So sometimes doing things that will help alleviate your stress, even though you might have to travel for it, getting an appointment means that you've taken a step to move forward, and sometimes that itself makes you feel a little bit better.

Dr. Johnstone: Absolutely. And I should mention we currently are doing a lot of telehealth visits, and that means you may have the opportunity to gain a lot of information and get a lot of questions answered while sitting comfortably in your home, even if that's several hours away.

And I think that's one of the few bright lights that have come out of the COVID pandemic, is that there is greater availability for telehealth. And again, I think this is something that can really be helpful to couples in making access much better and also in giving you the opportunity to talk about these things from the comfort of your home as opposed to being in the doctor's office.

Dr. Jones: We also know that women as they get into their late 30s are a little more likely, unfortunately, to miscarry if they do get pregnant. And we know that sometimes by the time you've lived on the planet long enough, you've accumulated some illnesses, diabetes, hypertension, other conditions that might make pregnancy riskier.

And of course, just being over 35, some people think makes you a riskier pregnancy. But if you have any kind of medical conditions that you take medicines for, it's important to kind of think about how you get yourself in the best shape to be the pregnant person that you want to be for this baby you want to grow.

Dr. Johnstone: Absolutely. I think one thing I would add to that . . . So, one, if you have health conditions, check in with your doctor, but we also might refer you to a maternal-fetal medicine specialist to prepare for addressing those health conditions. How will your pregnancy affect your diabetes, your high blood pressure? How will your high blood pressure or diabetes affect your pregnancy?

Another thing to think about is some couples begin their fertility journey when they haven't had any medical care for a number of years. And so, if you are starting to try to conceive and you have not seen a health care provider in several years where it's possible that you may have high blood pressure or pre-diabetes that isn't diagnosed, it's a good idea to just get a general checkup at some point within that year before you try to conceive so that we can find these things rather than finding them once you're pregnant. We can do a better job of treating them and preparing you for pregnancy if we know about them first.

Dr. Jones: Exactly. So we aren't so fertile as a species to start with on a month-by-month basis, and we aren't so fertile as we get older. Peak human fertility starts to decline in the late 20s. So if you're in your late 30s, don't wait too long to get help if you aren't getting pregnant right away because we can help.

Thanks to Dr. Johnstone and thank you for listening on The Scope.

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