Delaying motherhood gets much risker after age 37, say experts. (Photo: Kristijan Žontar/iStock/Getty Images)
As if women needed more pressure in their lives, a new study presented recently at the American Society of Reproductive Medicine's annual conference has found that by age 38, the chances of conceiving begin to drop dramatically. And by age 43, it is 10 times more difficult to get pregnant than it is at 37.
The researchers analyzed data from nearly 200 women to learn how many eggs, on average, it took to produce one healthy embryo. With that information they split the women into age groups to learn how the process was affected. "We learned that after the age of 37 there is a significant increase in the number of eggs a woman would have to generate in order to get one single embryo," Dr. Meredith Brower told Yahoo Health.
More specifically, a 37-year-old woman needs to produce about four eggs to get one healthy embryo. Given that a woman typically produces one egg per month as part of the normal menstrual cycle, that equates to four months of trying to get pregnant. But by age 43, a woman needs 44 eggs to get one healthy embryo, which equates to nearly four years of trying to get pregnant.
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It's startling news at a time when more and more women are delaying having their first child well into their 30s or beyond. According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 12 women has her first child at age 35 or older, compared to 1 in 100 women in 1970. "Women are now more inclined to be leaders in the workforce, and life gets busy," theorized Brower. "As a professional woman myself, I know that there is never a good time to have a baby. There is a lot of pressure to not take time away. Women are meeting their partners later, and everything is getting pushed back."
As the realities of being an ambitious professional collide with the risks of delayed motherhood, an increased number of women are starting to turn to oocyte cryopreservation, more commonly known as egg freezing — a process that involves harvesting, freezing, and storing a woman's eggs until she is ready to become pregnant.
The buzz surrounding egg freezing grew louder earlier this month when Apple and Google announced that the procedure would be covered as part of their employees' benefits packages — a noteworthy move considering that just a few years ago, egg freezing was considered an experimental procedure; In 2012, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine removed the "experimental" tag.
ASRM only endorses egg freezing only for medical purposes (for example, prior to a woman having cancer treatments that might impede her ability to conceive. But it has become a preemptive move made by healthy women who are now more aware of the risks of having children after 40, said Dr. Rebecca Starck, director of Regional Obstetrics and Gynecology at Cleveland Clinic. "For women who are able to choose egg freezing, the pressure is then off," Starck told Yahoo Health. "They don't have to worry about their career or constantly be looking for the right partner."
There are minimal risks involved in the procedure, said Starck. "We have found that the frozen eggs are equally as healthy as fresh eggs, and the pregnancy rates in using frozen eggs are similar to fresh eggs. They survive the freeze-thaw process very effectively."
That said, there are no guarantees, just as there are no guarantees that natural conception will go smoothly. And egg freezing is expensive — ranging between $6,000 and $15,000 — and time-consuming, so it's not the right choice for everyone.
For those women looking for a healthy-egg insurance policy "It's best to do it before the age of 38," said Brower. "All of our data is based on averages, so it's not like something miraculous happens on your 38th birthday, but it is significantly more difficult as you get older."