Sperm declines in quality as men age, swimming more slowly and becoming more genetically defective
The finding adds to some recent studies that have found that, even though men make fresh sperm every day and can father children well into old age, they become less fertile and also tend to have more children with birth defects.
"This study shows that men who wait until they're older to have children are not only risking difficulties conceiving, they could also be increasing the risk of having children with genetic problems," Andrew Wyrobek of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California said in a statement.
For centuries, this tendency toward birth defects with aging was blamed on the woman, whose fertility plummets with age and disappears at menopause. Women are born with all their eggs, and these egg cells mature and ripen as women age.
Older eggs are often defective and contribute both to lower female fertility and a tendency to genetic defects such as Down syndrome.
"Although it is well known that as women age, they are at increased risk for infertility, spontaneous abortion, and genetic and chromosomal defects among offspring, the association of male aging with these outcomes has been less well characterized," the researchers wrote in their report, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"Our research suggests that men, too, have a biological time clock -- only it is different," said Brenda Eskenazi of the University of California Berkeley's School of Public Health.
For their study the researchers examined sperm samples from 97 men aged 22 to 80, all working at or retired from a government research laboratory.
They disqualified current cigarette smokers and men with current fertility or reproductive problems or who had undergone chemotherapy or radiation treatment for cancer.
They examined the sperm for obvious features, such as motility, which includes the ability to swim quickly, and harder-to-find qualities such as what is known as DNA fragmentation index - a measure of damage that has been associated with male fertility, successful conception, and sustained pregnancy.
Men usually started to have an abnormal DNA fragmentation index at the age of 56, the researchers found.
For example, they found the rate of genetic mutations associated with dwarfism gradually increased by about 2 percent for every year of age in the men. About one in every 25,000 births results in a child with dwarfism, which affects all races.
"Our sperm findings provide further evidence that men choosing to delay fatherhood may have a lower likelihood of a successful pregnancy free of early loss and gene defects," the researchers wrote.
But it did not appear there was any one good test for healthy sperm, they also found.
"Men with good semen quality may still be at risk for fathering a child with a genomic defect. Our study also identified a small fraction of men who may be at increased risk for transmitting multiple genetic and chromosomal defects," the researchers added.
They said it was important to understand the effects of men having children at ever-older ages.
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