Sex & Relationships

Men's Sperm Count Is in a Rapid Free Fall

A new international study presents another explanation for the decline in the birth rate.

Photo Credit: Joshua Resnick / Shutterstock

An international study has found that men’s sperm count is in rapid decline in Western industrialized countries.

Conducted by a team of international scientists, the study found that sperm counts fell by more than half in the last four decades. The scientists screened more than 7,000 studies and then analyzed 185 studies that included the sperm count of about 43,000 men between 1973 and 2011 in North America, Australia, Europe, and New Zealand. 

The scientists' findings are concomitant with recent data that show a decline in the U.S. birth rate—the fertility rate in 2016 was 62 births per 1,000 women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

The study, which is the most comprehensive analysis conducted on the subject, confirmed the findings of previous research that found similar results. The rapid plummeting of sperm counts suggest that the issue will continue on its current trajectory.

"Since this is the best study that's ever been done, it is concerning that it suggests such a progressive and dramatic decrease in sperm counts over time," Peter Schlegel, a professor and chairman of urology at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York and vice president of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, told NPR.

Instead of solely looking at the sperm count of men who visit fertility clinics, the study was expanded to include soldiers and college students. Researchers found a "52.4 percent decline in sperm concentration and a 59.3 percent decline in the total sperm count over the 39-year period,” according to NPR.

The study could not determine the exact causes for the decline. Scientists interviewed by NPR theorized that exposure to chemicals in the mother’s womb, the obesity epidemic and the stresses of modern living could be contributing factors.

“There's also stress, which is related to sperm count,” Shanna Swan, reproductive epidemiologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai who helped conduct the study, told NPR. “So there are a number of factors which you could cluster under the heading of 'modern living' that could be playing a role in what we're seeing.”

To combat the Western world’s decrease in sperm count, couples could hypothetically try to conceive a few years earlier when they are more fertile. But child-rearing at a younger age is easier said than done, as a 2015 study by the Urban Institute found that millennial women are having fewer children and are reproducing at the slowest rate of any generation.

Primary factors pushing young adults to put off child rearing include turbulent economic crises, particularly the 2008 economic collapse. A report from the Pew Research Study found that adults aged 25 to 34 cite finances as the main reason they are not yet married. With wages falling for millennial workers combined with the skyrocketing costs of basic necessities like health care and rent in the country’s most populated urban areas, it is only logical for young people to make economic decisions that are conducive to living with these conditions, including delaying starting a family.

Of course, many believe that a decline in sperm count and a subsequent slowing in the birth rate, is far from a catastrophe. Scientific research has shown that human overpopulation disproportionately impacts the environment via the constant depletion of the planet's natural resources. With more resources being used than can be replenished by the Earth, growing families and more children would inevitably exacerbate this issue.

Celisa Calacal is a freelance writer for AlterNet. She is a senior journalism major and legal studies minor at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York. Previously she worked at ThinkProgress and served as an editor for Ithaca College's student newspaper. Follow her at @celisa_mia.

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