Maxwell Smith and his wife Ruth would love to extend their family — but, with a baby and a toddler already at home, they’d like to leave it four or five years before trying again.
There is one problem, however. While Ruth is 36, Maxwell, at 41, is mindful of the fact that in five years’ time he will be 46.
And, concerned by the ever-increasing number of studies showing that the offspring of older fathers face greater health risks, not to mention recent news that fertility supplements sold by High Street pharmacies are not effective, he has decided on an approach taken up by a small, but growing, number of men: he plans to freeze his sperm.
Sperm-freezing costs around £400 initially at a private clinic then about £300 a year to keep the sperm frozen (file picture)
‘We have a six-month-old and a two-and-a-half-year-old, and would like another child, but it would be very difficult if we had one in the near future,’ says Maxwell, who works in marketing and lives in Northamptonshire.
‘But there are some scary figures coming out about the health of children conceived by fathers aged 45 or older.
‘Freezing my sperm will take an hour of my time and that’s a small investment for something as important as this.
‘I pay insurance for my house, for my wife’s wedding ring and for all sorts of things — and this is another bit of insurance for me.’
Men have long been able to freeze their sperm before they undergo treatment for conditions such as cancer that can affect fertility. But, just as each year hundreds of women pay to put their eggs ‘on ice’ until they are ready to start a family, men are now following suit with their sperm.
Experts expect number of men freezing sperm to rise as men become more aware of the fact that it is not just women who have a ‘biological clock’ (file picture)
The numbers are small, but experts expect them to rise as men become more aware of the fact that it is not just women who have a ‘biological clock’.
The process is relatively straightforward. All a man has to do is attend a clinic and provide a sperm sample, which is then suspended in liquid nitrogen at -196 c.
‘Freezing sperm is a lot easier than freezing eggs,’ says Professor Geeta Nargund, medical director of Create Fertility, where Maxwell is a patient.
‘You don’t have to undergo a clinical procedure, you don’t have to take any fertility drugs and it’s a lot cheaper, so I think it will become much more common.’
Egg-freezing involves an initial payment of about £3,500, followed by a fee of up to £350 a year to keep the eggs frozen.
About 1,200 women in the UK freeze their eggs each year — more than four times the number five years ago — and it’s thought that most of those are doing it in order to put fertility on hold, rather than for any medical reason.
Sperm-freezing, by contrast — although not available on the NHS for non-medical reasons — is much cheaper, with private clinics charging in the region of £400 initially, then about £300 a year to keep the sperm frozen.
Andrology Solutions in London, which specialises in male fertility, is one clinic already freezing sperm — predominantly for professional single men, typically in their 40s, who worry their age may hinder their chances of fatherhood.
‘Just like women, there are plenty of men who want a family, but haven’t yet found the right partner,’ says Dr Sheryl Homa, the clinic’s scientific director.
‘Men have as much a biological need for children as women, and they want healthy children.’
Clinics typically store the sperm for ten years, unless the man becomes infertile during that time, in which case their sample can be kept for up to 55 years.
Fear about age and fertility is growing to such an extent that single men are also requesting fertility MoTs, in which they provide a sample to check their sperm count, strength and shape — all of which are important for fertility.
‘There are men coming in, even when they are not in a relationship, because they want us to test their sperm, which didn’t happen before,’ says Professor Nargund.
‘It was always something men only asked for if they were trying for a baby or if there was a medical reason to have a check.’
Professor Nargund welcomes the move — for she says that men need to wake up to the fact that they have a fertility window, too.
Men’s fertility drops as they get older, with factors such as smoking, drinking and bad diet, as well as age-related illness including diabetes, taking their toll on the body (file picture)
Not only does men’s fertility drop as they get older, as factors such as smoking, drinking and bad diet, as well as age-related illness including diabetes, take their toll on the body, but older fathers — just like older mothers — risk having less healthy babies.
In the latest study, published in The BMJ in November last year, researchers at Stanford University in the U.S. analysed health records involving 40.5 million births between 2007 and 2016.
It revealed that babies born to older fathers were more likely to be premature, have a low birth weight, experience seizures and need intensive care after birth, compared with babies born to younger fathers.
The risk of complications started to increase when the men hit their mid-30s and rose sharply from the age of 45.
With fathers aged 45 or older, there was a 14 per cent greater risk of babies being born prematurely or being admitted to a neonatal intensive care unit and an 18 per cent greater risk of suffering from seizures, compared with infants born to fathers aged 25 to 34 years.
Men aged 50 or older were 28 per cent more likely to have a child that required intensive care than those born to younger fathers.
Why do our bodies do that?
THIS week: Pins and needles
The prickling sensation of so-called ‘pins and needles’ occurs when we put prolonged pressure on a body part, such as while sitting or sleeping.
As well as cutting off blood supply, in the same way as crimping a hose stops water flowing through, it interrupts the signals between the nerves, so we also lose feeling.
While the body part may feel numb while compressed, it’s when we move and release the pressure, and the circulation returns, that we get the intense prickling sensation.
Dr Adam Taylor, a senior lecturer in anatomy at Lancaster University, says: ‘Compressing a body part reduces the ability of the nerves to transmit impulses back to the brain.
‘But then, when the blood supply returns and the nerves start firing again, they go into “oversensitive” mode as they recalibrate.’
The figures, which hold true whatever the age of the mother, are the first to show that a man’s age can affect the health of his baby from the start of their life.The theory is that the production of sperm becomes more error-prone as men age.
This leads to genetic mistakes creeping into the sperm’s DNA, with associated health risks for future children.
Previous research has linked having an older father to a host of other ills, including a higher risk of heart defects, epilepsy and mental illnesses including schizophrenia, as well as some cancers.
DNA damage to sperm also makes it harder for embryos to implant in the womb, so women with older male partners take longer to conceive and are more likely to miscarry.
Dr Homa says that, despite the statistics, the extra risks faced individually are low.
‘We have to get it into proportion and must not cause excessive worry,’ she adds.
‘Men need to be well counselled, because there are cost implications of storing sperm, not all sperm survive the freezing process and there’s no guarantee of a pregnancy at the end of it.
‘And we don’t want to freeze a sample from someone who is smoking 40 cigarettes a day, for example, so we encourage them to spend three months cleaning up their lifestyle to make sure that they have got the best possible sperm before we freeze it.’ Research shows that children born from sperm that has been frozen are just as healthy as other babies.
However, freezing and thawing is such a brutal process that only around 40 per cent of sperm will survive it.
Of course, men who want to look after their fertility do have other cheaper options, including cutting back on alcohol and caffeine, stopping smoking and eating healthily.
With temperature affecting sperm production, Dr Homa also suggests men avoid hot baths and wear cotton boxer shorts.
‘I recommend this for 12 weeks for anyone wanting to improve their fertility or who would like to start a family,’ she says.
10 per cent – the proportion of babies born to fathers over the age of 40
Professor Sheena Lewis, an expert in male fertility from Queen’s University Belfast and chair of the British Andrology Society, which specialises in male-specific diseases, says male celebrities who have children late in life send ‘the most horrendous message to men at large’.
Sir Mick Jagger was 73 when his son Deveraux, his eighth child, was born in 2016.
Meanwhile, fellow Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood also became a father of twins two years ago at the age of 68.
Professor Lewis says that if, like these ageing celebrity dads, a man has a much younger partner, her eggs are able to repair some of the age-related damage in his sperm.
However, that’s not the case for the average man in the street, whose partner will most likely be close to him in age.
‘We ought to educate boys at school about their fertility,’ says Professor Lewis.
‘We’ve said to women for about 20 years: “Have your kids when you are 30 — don’t wait until you are 40,” and we should say the same thing to men.’
Professor Nargund also wants to see boys given fertility lessons in schools. ‘But, in an ideal world, I wouldn’t want men or women to rely on fertility clinics for conception,’ she adds.
She says that when men who freeze sperm for non-medical reasons come to use it, their partner may have to undergo some kind of fertility treatment.
This can involve uncomfortable procedures, expensive scans or drugs with potential side-effects.
Professor Nargund says: ‘I would hate to see the situation where women are subjected to more and more fertility treatments when they are perfectly fertile themselves, just because men are relying on fertility clinics to help them have children.’