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Stories of men fathering children all the way into their 90s can make people believe that male fertility is everlasting.
While there is some truth to that, men also experience a decrease in fertility with age, though more gradually than female fertility rates. Do men have a biological clock when it comes to fertility? When do men stop producing sperm?
Let’s take a look at how age and other factors like illness affect male fertility and sperm health.
At what age do men stop producing sperm?
There is no set time period when a man’s sperm production stops. Women are born with all the eggs they will ever have. Men, on the other hand, are able to produce sperm cells for their entire lives.
As men age, testosterone levels go down and for some, it might be hard to get an erection. Many men experience erectile dysfunction after age 40. But this is a general slowing––not stopping––of male fertility. We know this because there are many older fathers. Men over age 60 commonly have children.
The oldest father to naturally conceive was reported to be a 96-year-old man from India. Fathering a child after age 90 is rare (even for the record books), but it shows that it’s possible for older men to impregnate someone. That said, men still have biological clocks that cause sperm health and fertility to decline over time (Bhasin, 2022).
At what age are men most fertile?
The answer to this question varies depending on what parameters you look at. One study found that overall sperm quality was best between ages 30–35. When researchers look at how well sperm moves forward (sperm motility), it was best before age 25 (Levitas, 2007).
Another study showed that conception over a 12-month period was 30% less likely for men older than 40 compared to those 30 or younger. Other research found that men older than 45 took five times longer to conceive than those under age 25 (Harris, 2011).
This gradual fertility decline is different for each man, and the ability for them to have a baby also depends on their partner.
How does age affect sperm?
As men age, the most common and dramatic changes are seen in sperm morphology and motility. Sperm motility is how well sperm moves forward. Morphology measures the shape, size, and structure of sperm. Aging can increase the number of abnormalities in sperm.
The numbers can vary quite a bit, but here’s what one research review found when comparing sperm health in men aged 50 or older to men 30 or younger (Kidd, 2001; Bhasin, 2022):
Reasons for sperm decline
A man’s testosterone levels gradually decline starting at 20 years of age. This is because hormonal changes start happening that alter sperm production, creating lower-quality sperm (Bhasin, 2022).
Another factor is oxidative stress, which is when excess free radicals cause damage to cells in the body. This is due to imbalances of antioxidants that normally keep free radicals in check. Research shows oxidative stress impacts sexual health too, damaging sperm and leading to increases in DNA damage as men age (Bisht, 2017).
Environmental factors and health conditions can also affect sperm or boost oxidative stress. Heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and other chronic illnesses are all linked to lower sperm quality.
Infertility can also be a sign of a broader medical problem. There are some medications that impact sperm production. Your healthcare provider can explain the effects of any drugs you may be taking (Ding, 2016).
How can men improve sperm count?
If you’ve been trying to conceive without success, it’s best to check in with a fertility specialist, especially if age is a concern.
One of the first steps in determining what’s affecting male fertility is a semen analysis. This is used to analyze sperm and semen quality. A healthcare provider will advise you if further testing is needed. They can also diagnose and treat any illnesses or infections you have that could affect healthy sperm.
In some cases, a medical procedure like a varicocele repair or addressing a hormonal problem can improve sperm count. There are general lifestyle approaches you can take to boost your sperm count as well including (Emokpae, 2021; Liu, 2017):
- Eat a healthy diet (and limit unhealthy fats and sugars)
- Get regular exercise
- Make room for quality sleep (sleep helps sperm production)
- Reduce stress
Everything you need to know about sperm
Toxins and heat are known to damage sperm. If you’re trying to have a baby it’s best to avoid the following (Emokpae, 2021):
- Recreational drugs
- Too much alcohol
- Anabolic steroids or testosterone therapy (anything that reduces testosterone production)
- Heat (hot tubs, laptops, tight underwear)
- Pesticides, heavy metals, toxins, and pollution (Pizzol, 2020; Robb, 2022)
Every year, millions of men over the age of 40 will experience fatherhood. Most have normal sperm, can conceive naturally, and will be part of a healthy pregnancy.
Still, it helps to talk with your healthcare provider about any concerns, especially if you’ve been trying unsuccessfully to have a baby for more than a year. There are many options to help men of all ages.
- Bhasin, S. (2022). Age-related changes in the male reproductive system. Endotext. Retrieved May 4, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK278998/
- Bisht, S., Faiq, M., Tolahunase, M., & Dada, R. (2017). Oxidative stress and male infertility. Nature Reviews Urology, 14(8), 470–485. doi:10.1038/nrurol.2017.69. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28508879/
- Chianese, R. & Pierantoni, R. (2021). Mitochondrial reactive oxygen species (ROS) production alters sperm quality. Antioxidants, 10(1), 92. doi:10.3390/antiox10010092. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7827812/
- Ding, J., Shang, X., Zhang, Z., et al. (2016). FDA-approved medications that impair human spermatogenesis. Oncotarget, 8(6), 10714–10725. doi:10.18632/oncotarget.12956. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5354694/
- Emokpae, M. A. & Brown, S. I. (2021). Effects of lifestyle factors on fertility: Practical recommendations for modification. Reproduction and Fertility, 2(1). doi:10.1530/raf-20-0046. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8812443/
- Halpern, J. A. & Brannigan, R. E. (2021). Sperm DNA fragmentation and pregnancy outcomes—the jury is still out. F&S Reports, 2(3), 265. doi:10.1016/j.xfre.2021.07.002. Retrieved from https://www.fertstertreports.org/article/S2666-3341(21)00080-5/fulltext
- Harris, I. D., Fronczak, C., Roth, L., & Meacham, R. B. (2011). Fertility and the aging male. Reviews in Urology, 13(4), e184–e190. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3253726/
- Kidd, S. A., Eskenazi, B., & Wyrobek, A. J. (2001). Effects of male age on semen quality and fertility: a review of the literature. Fertility and Sterility, 75(2), 237–248. doi:10.1016/s0015-0282(00)01679-4. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11172821/
- Leslie, S. (2022). Male Infertility. StatPearls. Retrieved May 4, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK562258/
- Levitas, E., Lunenfeld, E., Weisz, N., et al. (2007). Relationship between age and semen parameters in men with normal sperm concentration: Analysis of 6022 semen samples. Andrologia, 39(2), 45–50. doi:10.1111/j.1439-0272.2007.00761.x. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17430422/
- Liu, M. M., Liu, L., Chen, L., et al. (2017). Sleep deprivation and late bedtime impair sperm health through increasing antisperm antibody production: A prospective study of 981 healthy men. Medical Science Monitor, 23, 1842–1848. doi:10.12659/msm.900101. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5402839/#:~:text=Lack%20of%20sleeping%20time%20may,necessarily%20produce%20higher%2Dquality%20sleep
- Pizzol, D., Foresta, C., Garolla, A., et al. (2020). Pollutants and sperm quality: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Environmental Science and Pollution Research, 28(4), 4095–4103. doi:10.1007/s11356-020-11589-z. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33196997/
- Robb, E. & Baker, M. (2022). Organophosphate toxicity. StatPearls. Retrieved May 4, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470430/
Felix Gussone is a physician, health journalist and a Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.