The hard facts about older women and fertility
Nicole Kidman did it at 41. So did Halle Berry, and again at 46. Earlier this year it was reported that a 46-year-old from Orlando became the oldest woman to have a baby through IVF using her own fresh biological eggs. But do stories like this kid the rest of us into thinking that getting pregnant later in life is an easy feat?
According to Mary Wingfield, gynaecologist at Holles Street Hospital and Merrion fertility Clinic, stories of celebrities getting pregnant in their 40s lulls women into a false sense of security and there’s a lot of misleading information out there.
“Women in Ireland are not always realistic about their chances. They put off motherhood for a number of reasons including a feeling that they need to focus on their careers, they need to save for a house or they just want to enjoy their 20s and 30s. They don’t realise that putting it off can cause problems when they try to conceive down the line.”
According to Wingfield, careers and money can wait but your biological clock just won’t.
“Our bodies are designed to have kids in our late teens and early 20s but that kind of thinking no longer fits in with people’s expectations.”
The problem is that a woman is born with all the eggs she will ever have. As she ages, so do her eggs. For instance, at age 30, there’s a 75 per cent chance of conceiving within a year. By 40, the likelihood reduces to just 44 per cent. And once you’re in your 40s your chances begin to decrease dramatically. A study in the medical journal Fertility and Sterility found that 40-year old women treated for infertility had a 25 per cent chance of getting pregnant using their own eggs. By 43 it had dropped to 10 per cent and by 44 there was just a 1.6 per cent chance.
Freezing eggs for future use is an option for women who REALLY can’t try now – for example, if they are waiting to meet a suitable partner. But freezing eggs is very much a second rate option and must be done before the age of 35 to have a realistic chance of success. It also commits a woman (who is probably very fertile at this time) to needing IVF in the future and success rates are just not as good as trying naturally.
So what is the Hollywood stars’ secret? According to Mary many are using donor eggs – whether they admit it or not.
“The reality is they are more than likely using the eggs of a younger woman. It’s a very personal thing and often they don’t want to talk about it but it gives a false sense of security to people who are looking at them thinking they did it naturally - I’ll be able to too.
“Of course there is the possibility that a woman in her 40s will get pregnant but they are the minority not the rule. I see older women coming in to the Merrion Fertility Clinic all the time with false hope that they will get pregnant with their own eggs because they are not aware of the facts. I had a patient last week who had two children easily and naturally at 30 and 31. Now she’s 37 and her eggs are nearly all gone. If she had left it till now she’d be looking at donor eggs.”
And then there are all the other risks associated with putting off motherhood.
In your 40s you’re far more likely to develop problems like high blood pressure and diabetes during pregnancy. Miscarriage rates increase substantially in your 40s as well. When a woman becomes pregnant at 43 she has a 50 per cent chance of miscarriage compared to a 25 per cent chance for a younger woman.
“After 40 the risk of complications goes up,” says Mary. “My advice is to get as much information as you can so you are aware of the risks of leaving it too late.
“And as a society, do we really want women and couples to be having their babies in their 40s? That means they will be in the caring role well into their 60s – a time when their own parents are also beginning to need care and attention.
Surely it’s easier to have your children young when you have more energy – and are free to enjoy some ‘me time’ in your 50s and 60s. With all the recent hype re big corporations helping women to postpone and freeze their eggs – we as a society really need to think carefully about this one.”