If you’re trying to conceive, you will be aware of your ovarian reserve but when you are starting out on your fertility journey, this isn’t something you will have come across before. Our potential to produce eggs declines as we get older, but the rate at which this happens is different for everyone – so some women may be diagnosed with a low ovarian reserve in their thirties or even twenties, which often comes as a real surprise as there may be no other signs of any decline in fertility at all.
If you want to know about your ovarian reserve, I was interviewed about the emotional impact by Allie Anderson for an article for NetDoctor the other day which you can read online here. It is important that we talk about this issue more often and more openly. Fertility specialists may suggest using donor eggs if they feel the ovarian reserve is so low that IVF is unlikely to be successful, but for women this may seem a huge and unexpected step and is certainly one which needs thought and counselling.
Anyone who is using donor eggs or sperm will find it useful to contact the Donor Conception Network who can provide information, help and support.
I have a new-found respect for TV presenter Kirstie Allsopp for speaking out about fertility and the biological clock. If you haven’t heard about it, you can read her comments in an interview in the Telegraph here, but to summarise she said she thought we needed to be more honest about the biological clock. She suggested that as we all lived much longer, it was perhaps time to think differently about the order in which we did things and that having children and settling down earlier, and going to university later might be a better way.
Inevitably, she’s come in for a lot of criticism – often from people who haven’t read what she actually said and from those who see her thoughts as some kind of reactionary anti-feminist stance. In fact, what she’s suggesting is far from reactionary or anti-feminist. It’s actually quite radical, and I think she may be right.
She went on to explain herself very clearly in this debate on Newsnight, where she spelled out that she wasn’t just talking about young women thinking differently, but about young men thinking differently too. We may live longer, but the average age of the menopause hasn’t changed and if people want to have families, it’s both men and women who need to think carefully about when they do this.
We don’t want to scare young women, to make them limit their choices or to prevent them achieving their full potential – but doing things in a different order doesn’t have to be limiting. As a society we tend to have rather negative and judgmental views of women who have children very early, but the handful of women I know who had children in their late teens and early twenties have all gone on to have very successful and fulfilling careers – and are getting on with the rest of their lives post-children at a time when many of their contemporaries are finding themselves on the fertility treadmill. Maybe it’s time we did rethink the way we do things?
You may not think Kirstie is right, and of course it isn’t always going to be right to have children earlier for all kinds of reasons – but hats off to her for being brave enough to speak out and raise the issue.
Do you know how old your mother was when she reached the menopause? If you’re trying to conceive, it’s a question worth asking. A new study from Denmark published in the journal Human Reproduction has found that your ovarian reserve – that’s the number of eggs you have left in your ovaries – may be linked to your mother’s age at menopause.
We know that ovarian reserve declines as a woman gets older, but this study has found that the decline appears to be faster in women whose mothers had an early menopause (that’s before the age of 45) compared with those whose mothers had a late menopause (that’s after the age of 55). Apparently, your fertility starts to decline about 20 years before your menopause – so if you have an early menopause, your fertility will have been affected at an earlier age too.
The authors don’t want to alarm women unnecessarily, and make it clear that their research doesn’t suggest that your mother’s age at menopause will necessarily predict your chances of pregnancy at a certain age What they have found is a link between ovarian reserve and your mother’s age at menopause which supports the theory that heredity may play an important role in reproductive ageing.
So, if you are worried about how late you can leave it to have a baby, one factor which you should at least consider is how old your mother was when she reached the menopause. If you find out that she was in her mid-forties, it may be worth thinking about having your own ovarian reserve tested sooner rather than later.