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Celebrities having babies over 40

Pregnancy in your 40s- how realistic is it?: Princeton IVF blog
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The media shows plenty of Hollywood stars having babies in their 40s, but are they telling the whole story?

For many it is exciting to hear about the celebrities they adore having babies. Like many women in the society at large, many celebrities have chosen to delay having children for a variety of reasons. It should come at surprise, then, that many of the celebrity moms depicted in the magazines are in their 40s.

Knowing how women trying to start a family (or growing her current family) as they get older face an uphill battle,  are the media who cover these stories doing a disservice to women's reproductive health?

To answer this question, researchers at New York University looked at all the issues of 3 popular magazines widely read by women of reproductive age over a 4 year period.

This is what they found:

  • There were 1,894 references to pregnancy or fertility
  • 1/3 of the issues had cover stories related to fertility
  • There 240 celebrities, who averaged age 35
  • Only 2 articles on 40+ year olds using donor eggs
  • There were 10 stories about adoption and 5 about using a gestational carrier. Not one of these mentioned that they had previously suffered from infertility

It is understandable that a celebrity (or anyone else for that matter) would not want to share the very personal details of what it is like to go through fertility testing and treatment.  Still, the stories presented to the public are far from complete. While there is nothing that appears to be inaccurate in the articles, they present an unrealistic view of normal fertility after 35.

Modern fertility treatments have revolutionized the ability of couples suffering from infertility to get pregnant, but it has not been able to eliminate reproductive aging. Implying that waiting to have children is not harmful to your fertility through human interest stories is doing a disservice to women. 

Is it possible to stop the biological clock?

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Today, age is the most important determinant of woman's ability to conceive both naturally and with treatments such as IVF, but might it be possible to overcome the "biologic clock"? 

It is has been understood for many years that a woman is born with all the eggs she will ever produce and that she begins to lose eggs even before she is born. The eggs seem to work reasonably well into the early 30's but in the late 30's  and particularly in the 40's the number and quality of those eggs diminish considerably. We know that most if not all of that drop is the result of abnormal chromosomes in the eggs and when genetically abnormal eggs fertilize they produce genetically abnormal embryos. Most genetically abnormal embryos will not implant in the womb, and if they do, they usually miscarry.

These abnormal eggs result from errors in a process call meiosis. If this sounds familiar from high school biology, it is. Meiosis is the process by which reproductive stem cells produce eggs and sperm for reproduction. Most scientists nowadays believe that these errors result, at least in part, from a lack of the energy needed to divide the chromosomes properly, and that energy comes from cell's natural batteries, the mitochondria.

Now, a biotech company has come up with a technique to transfer fresh young, energy-rich mitochondria into a woman's eggs, and has even achieved a live birth with it. Sounds like a miracle cure? Maybe, maybe not.  If proven successful and safe, it has the potential to revolutionize IVF treatment for women over 35 and extend the age at which non-donor IVF may be successful. Still, don't expect to see it an IVF clinic near you any time soon. First, we do not know how effective this technique really is and most importantly whether it results in healthy children. The technology involves cloning technology and "3-parent IVF," and it is unlikely that will get past regulatory agencies here in the US anytime soon.

 

Egg freezing- the controversy continues

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Egg freezing- Is it effective and is it a "fertility insurance?"

Several years back the American Society for Reproductive Medicine declared that the freezing and storage of unfertilized eggs (oocyte cryopreservation) was no longer experimental. Reproductive science specialists have worked out the kinks and figured how to freeze, thaw, fertilize and grow these eggs, and from them get healthy live born children. The initial focus was to help women who wanted to have children, but were facing cancer treatment (surgery, chemotherapy or radiation) that might render them sterile. The data on pregnancy rates was very sparse but it in comparison to the alternative in these women, moving forward was a no brainer.

Now researchers in in Canada, have published on the outcomes in couples based on US data. The pregnancy rates range from 4-12 %, and that is in young women under 30.  The rates are likely much lower in women in their 30s and 40s. While not great, it does offer some hope where there was none before. The problems is that now egg freezing is being used to delay childbearing in women for social reasons. With the announcement by google that they will pay for the procedure in their employees and the advent of "egg freezing parties," this is becoming more widespread.

As reproductive medicine specialists, we all want to offer our patients reproductive freedom, the ability to have children at a time that works out in their lives. Undoubtably, freezing and storing eggs for future use will enable some women to have children well into their 40's and early 50's. However, those who are unsuccessful with frozen eggs, and there will be many of them, will be left little choice other than using eggs from a donor, knowing that their biologic clock ran out while they had other priorities in life.

The problem is this: Is egg freezing an answer to a real problem? or is it giving women false hope? It may be a little of both. Only time will tell as the technology moves forward.

How old is too old to try IVF ?

With stories of 45 year celebrities having babies (and sometimes even twins and triplets) with high tech treatments, most people think that age is not a barrier to successful treatment.  When using donor eggs from a young egg donor, that is definitely true. The chances for success with donor egg ivf is excellent, even for women in their late 40's. However that is not the case in women using their own eggs. Pregnancies in women undergoing fertility treatment without the use of a donor over 45 are very unusual.  A recent report from Florida describes a 46 year old woman who is reported to be oldest woman to conceive from IVF with her own eggs. Is this a major breakthrough? Not really. The main determinant over whether a fertilized egg will develop into a healthy baby is whether the embryo is genetically abnormal. Genetically normal embryos are common in 25 year olds but pregnancy rates are never 100%. Likewise, the vast majority of  45 year olds' embryos are abnormal, and so the pregnancy rates would be expected to be quite low but not exactly 0%. When confronted with these odds, most couples would chose not to try.