Whither the Fertility Crisis?

Infertility hasn't risen, but baby anxiety has

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There’s some surprising news on the fertility front: Even though IVF treatments have doubled over the last decade, national infertility rates have actually dropped since the 1980s. A comprehensive government study of U.S. married women of childbearing age found that roughly 6 percent were infertile from 2006 to 2010, compared to 8.5 percent in 1982.

Researchers analyzed data from interviews with 22,000 men and women ages 15 to 44 that were collected between 2006 and 2010 as part of the National Survey on Family Growth and compared them to results from 2002 and 1982. In one of the most unexpected findings, 27 percent of childless women over 35 were infertile in the most recent survey. That’s in contrast to 44 percent in 1982.

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Unfortunately, our bodies haven’t changed that much within a few decades. The glowing statistics reflect sweeping social trends of later motherhood, cautions lead author Anjani Chandra, PhD, a demographer from the National Center for Health Statistics, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The more accurate conclusion is that infertility rates haven’t fluctuated significantly, she says. “People are getting married later. They’re trying to have their first kids at an older age, so it pushes the rate down,” she explains. Since more women in the later surveys were on birth control and didn’t try to start their families until after 35, fewer qualified for the study’s definition of infertile, which is failing to get pregnant after having unprotected sex for 12 months. Never mind the women over 44 who were trying to conceive but couldn’t be counted because of the study’s age cutoff. The men’s rates also stayed steady; 9.4 percent of men 15 to 44 and 12 percent of men 25 to 44 suffered from some form of infertility in 2006 and 2010, which were similar to earlier rates.

There are other caveats: medical factors that influence fertility, such as an historical decline in smoking levels or lower rates of pelvic inflammatory disease, may have also played a role. Also, some women might not wait out the entire 12 months of peeing on a stick and failing to see a positive pregnancy test result. “People wait less time before getting help,” says Chandra. That’s in line with doctors’ recommendations that women over 35 get medical help after only six months of unsuccessful trying.

But considering how many stories we hear today about people undergoing IVF treatment, the findings certainly seem puzzling. Indeed, IVF use has exploded in the last decade, and fertility doctors perform more than 160,000 cycles a year, according to the CDC. Yet since many patients undergo multiple cycles, the number of women in treatment is likely much lower, explains Chandra. Her team is currently trying to figure out how many people seek medical help for their infertility and will release those results next. So far, it appears that trend has remained flat.

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Yet here’s what has changed over time: Baby anxiety. We live in a world in which infertility storylines unfold in reality shows and IVF ads greet commuters in train stations. And while it’s encouraging to hear celebrities share their baby-making woes, the openness can make it seem as if everyone from Hollywood stars to your sister’s former college roommate is having problems. The younger generation in particular may be getting knocked over the head with the message that it’s hard to get knocked up. A recent poll of women in their 20s by the magazine Cosmopolitan found that 20 percent assume they will have problems getting pregnant, and 70 percent answered that they sometimes worry about being able to have kids by the time they’re ready. As a result, one-fifth admitted to being careless with birth control because they believed they had such a small chance of getting pregnant.

Infertility is frightening and mysterious, and it’s comforting to know that the problem hasn’t gotten worse. A 42-year-old body is going to have the same challenges getting pregnant in 2010 as 1982. But we live in a different world of reproductive science now and can take advantage of treatment advances that our mothers and big sisters didn’t have. Perhaps those will make a real dent in the statistics when the next generation of interviewers comes knocking on the door.

MORE: Women Need to “Lean In” To Pregnancy, Too