Global decline in male fertility sparks need for action

Sperm count has halved since the 1970s and rate of decline is accelerating

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Research showing falling sperm rates are causing fertility concerns is the latest indicator that declining health in men needs urgent action .

Obesity, poor diet, exposure to harmful environmental toxins and overuse of medications are thought to have all contributed to a rapid decline in sperm rates since the 1970s.

Normal sperm count ranges from 15 million to 200 million sperm per millilitre of semen, with the global average dropping from about 104 million in 1973 to 49 million in 2019.

Research published by the University of Jerusalem Hadassah Braun School of Public Health found the rate of decline accelerated in the 21st century.

Published in the journal Human Reproduction Update, this is the first meta-analysis demonstrating sperm count decline among men from South and Central America, Asia and Africa. The findings also link back to studies of sperm count decline in North America, Europe, and Australia indicating it has continued and evenaccelerated in the 21st century.

Consistent with men's health trends

Researchers extracted the findings from 185 studies of 42,935 men who provided semen samples from 1973-2011 for their meta-regression analysis. Data from men in 53 countries were included in the analysis.

“There is a troubling decline in men’s sperm concentration and total sperm counts at over 1 per cent each year,” said researcher Prof Shanna Swan at the Icahn School of Medicine, Mount Sinai, New York.

“These are consistent with adverse trends in other men’s health outcomes, such as testicular cancer, hormonal disruption, and genital birth defects, as well as declines in female reproductive health. This clearly cannot continue unchecked.”

Medics in the UAE said declining sperm rates associated with men’s health were being driven by poor lifestyle choices and increasing obesity rates.

“Obesity is on the rise and accelerating health risks could also be causing an accelerated decline in fertility, overall, the decline in the male fertility rate is a global phenomenon," said Dr Sailaja Vuppu, head of obstetrics and gynaecology at Burjeel Hospital, Abu Dhabi.

“It is like a slow pandemic. If it continues, it could pose a major threat to human propagation.”

High temperatures in the region could be contributing to declining fertility, Dr Vuppu said.

Studies have shown people who work in high-temperature environments, such as firefighters, bakers, and boiler room workers tend to have a lower sperm count than the general population.

“The decline is increasing,” said Dr Zakwan Khrait, a reproductive consultant at Fakih IVF in Dubai.

“Overall, the same factors that harm health in general usually are also harmful to semen quality.

“Another factor specific to the UAE is often caused by lifestyle factors such as rising rates of diabetes, stress, and obesity.

“The common use of anabolic steroids for bodybuilding and, somewhat counterintuitively, Vitamin D deficiency is also a problem.”

Although environmental factors that affect fertility can be difficult to change, lifestyle tweaks such as quitting smoking, cutting back on alcohol, avoiding drugs and processed food and eating a healthy balanced diet can promote healthy sperm production.

“While there is no obvious statistic to compare the mean fertility level between our UAE community and other parts of the world, observation through our clinical practice suggests it is the same,” said Dr Yassir Jasim, a urologist at Canadian Specialist Hospital, Dubai.

“Low sperm counts or abnormal sperm function is seen in about 20 per cent of couples we see.”

Updated: January 12, 2023, 10:04 AM