While you’ve been spending your summer swimming up a storm, men’s sperm, unfortunately, have not. That’s right: sperm counts in America and Europe are on the serious decline, and the fertility conundrum not showing signs of stopping.
Let’s dive – swim pun very, very much intended – right in, shall we?
First things first, talk of a “spermpocalypse” (yup) has been brewing for some time now. Talk of sperm count declines goes back decades (just take a look at the British Medical Journal‘s assessment of sperm quality decline Back in 2011 – which, keep in mind, is almost a decade ago at this point – sperm counts in North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand had dropped to around 47 million per milliliter, a number that was closer to 100 million per milliliter four decades prior. According this data published in the Human Reproduction Update, sperm counts in Western countries basically dropped by about 53 percent between 1973 and 2011.
A more recent study –– this one a joint effort between the Reproductive Medical Associates clinic in New Jersey and the Valencian Infertility Institute in Spain –– looked at the percentage of male infertility patients whose total motile sperm count (TMSC) was at a healthy level (about 15 million sperm per mL and above). According to that, the number of men with healthy TMSC levels went down from 85 percent (2002-2005) to 79 percent (2014-2017), while the percentage of men with a TMSC of less than 5 million actually jumped from 9 percent to over 11.5 percent.
Okay, so now you may be wondering, What’s the deal? Why do we think that sperm counts are dropping thus?
As far as the reason behind the sperm count drops, scientists and researchers have plenty of theories, but the one that remains more or less consistent across the board is the increasingly high number of chemicals and pollutants entering the human body. There’s a BPA-and-phthalates theory, for example, that suggests that the chemical compounds found in plastic that we use for everything from food storage to cleaning products might cause men’s bodies to produce less testosterone and sperm –– and to genetically pass that low sperm count onto their own children. Then there’s the general pollution theories, or the theories suggesting that it’s all about lifestyle choices, like smoking or high stress.
The research around sperm count numbers and the causes behind their decline confirm two things: the drop in sperm is, in fact, happening (a.k.a. it’s not a myth, as many researchers go back and forth postulating) and, we kind of don’t really know why (at least not definitively).
So, that just leaves us with one last question: should we be freaking out for the fate of humanity yet, or what? Eh, not really. Yes, research shows that over the past several decades, sperm counts have dropped at record rates, but according to medical professionals, we’re still far from a point where the percentage of men out there with a healthy TMSC ought to be considered drastically abnormal. In other words, while the data published in the Human Reproduction Update, for example, shows a 53 percent drop in sperm count between 1973-2011, men’s average TMSC in 2011 was still well within a healthy range (47 million sperm per ml). That said, we’re in a place now where the key to addressing the dip in sperm counts isn’t about taking an alarmist approach, but rather doing more of the research to understand where it’s coming from and how we can work towards reversing the decline, or at the very least, causing it to level off.