Don't Panic! Women Can Conceive Over 30

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | February 2, 2010 12:01 pm

Over at ABCNews, a headline earlier this week read, “For Women Who Want Kids, ‘the Sooner the Better’: 90 Percent of Eggs Gone By Age 30.” As expected, the story popped up all over facebook during the next few days with ensuing commentary on female fertility. To which I must respond…

Let me begin with the opening sentence:

By the time a woman hits 30, nearly all of her ovarian eggs are gone for good, according a new study that says women who put off childbearing for too long could have difficulty ever conceiving.

eggHyperbole anyone? (I mean sure, that outta scare lots of women enough into reading what follows and clicking through the links.) The piece reports that according to a study out of the University of St. Andrews and Edinburgh University, women have lost 90 percent of their eggs by the time they are 30 years old. But wait just one second. Yes it’s true that fertility drops significantly between 21 and 35, but it’s more complicated than this topical claim suggests, and furthermore, there’s a lot more to the story. So before women nearing the big 3-0 (like me) and younger rush off to get preggers, let’s examine this claim a bit…

Baby girls are born with one to two million follicles (immature eggs), but the majority die off early. By the time we reach puberty, we have, on average, about 400,000. From then on, we shed one developed egg–along with about one thousand follicles–every time we ovulate. So in the end, about 400 such follicles ever reach maturity. While this study tries to quantify the number of shed over time, it bothers me the way this story seems to overstate a sense that women are somehow running out.

There are so many layers to this issue, it would be impossible to list all of them in a blog post, so I think what’s most important for everyone to remember is relatively simple: To actually make a baby, it takes just one.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Education
MORE ABOUT: conception, fertility

Comments (23)

  1. Pete

    I can’t stand when they emphasize the fear factor in these studies. I’m sure it worked here though.

  2. Art

    I need them to feel hurried to increase my chance of procreating. If they don’t feel pressured into mating quickly they will most certainly limit their search to more suitable (richer) mates.

  3. “To actually make a baby, it takes just one.”

    Parthenogenesis? ;-)

  4. Chloride

    It takes just one baby to make a baby?

  5. @ 3. Ed Yong,
    Ha. Well, maybe in terms of cloning ;)

    I mean one egg of course…

  6. Oh noes! My precious, precious eggsez! Gone!

    Here, this postcard I used to keep tacked up over my desk will help women everywhere.
    http://babble.com/CS/blogs/strollerderby/2007/09/08-15/forgot%20to%20have%20children.jpg

  7. LOL! I LOVE stories like this . . . its kind of like going to the Catholic church after you haven’t been to one for a very very long time. The mind frame you have to be in to accept this type of story is just sooo, hmmm, base. The only advice I give after someone compliments me on my amazing daughter is, “Wait until after your 30 ! the experience will actually be empowering for both you and them.” Sure, have a lot of kids when you’re 20 something . . . the industrial war complex needs lots of bodies to immunize without thought, feed their GMO foods to, fill up with all kinds of Pharmas when they are older … in other words, keep that unevolved method of humanity surviving!

  8. Gus Snarp

    @elaine – I’m sorry, did you just say “immunize without thought”???

  9. Gus Snarp

    Man, this article is terrible. I’m curious about this statement from the researcher: “There’s no way to determine an exact number of eggs.” If that’s true, then how did the researchers determine what percentage were left?

    And then this: “Savard said women should have children earlier, if possible.” Really bad advice on the face of it, and I’m not sure what Savard or ABC thinks “earlier” is. To those listening it is likely to mean something quite different from what the next line in the article suggests it might mean to Savard: ” Healthy women in their late 30s and early 40s who think they can postpone pregnancy may be jeopardizing their chance of conceiving, she said.”

    Yeah, late 30′s and early 40′s is about the time one needs to poop or get off the pot, but that’s not early by any means.

    And since we get the merest glimpse of the statistics and no indication of methodology here, I’ll go the whole nine yards and throw in some anecdotal evidence:

    My wife had our first son at 38 and is pregnant with our second at 41, and we had no trouble conceiving.

  10. Billingham

    #2…there’s one misogynist in every conversation regarding women.

    And more largely: Isn’t it hard to take this thing seriously considering how many people are 30 or more years younger than their mothers? It’s hard to deny all of that existence.

  11. But Sheril, if this is true then how can women your age ever expect to have more than 40,000 babies?

  12. Neuro-conservative

    Zuska — I don’t think your postcard will be very helpful for the many women I know who have gone through immense physical and emotional pain trying to conceive. They feel like suckers for believing the old-school feminist message that you can have it all, without trade-offs. If they had it to do over again, they would not have prioritized career so heavily.

    Sheril — While the reporting on that article is poor, it does not negate the fact that fertility drops precipitously during one’s thirties.

  13. Stanley H. Tweedle
  14. bad Jim

    Lab Lemming is hereby awarded one set of intertubez.

    My grandmother had her third and last child on her fortieth birthday: “Life begins at forty” was the family joke. Not to be outdone, my brother’s fourth child was born on his 54th birthday (his second wife was only 45). Hey, it makes birthdays easier to remember and actually slightly less awkward.

  15. Chamomile

    I had trouble conceiving in my 30s and so did many of my friends…so I feel duty bound to speak up here. I would not dismiss that report as mere fear-mongering. It’s especially distressing what they say about women at age 40–97% of eggs are gone! That actually doesn’t even do justice to the problem. There are lots of conditions for conception, and it does become much more difficult as you get into your 30s. There is lots of evidence that supports this, besides the recent report.

    Instead of dismissing this report, it would make more sense to ask employers to adjust to the realities of reproduction. Lots of academic women are in the double bind of seeking tenure and trying to reproduce at the same time. If women comfort themselves that “it takes just one” and “it’s possible” to conceive until menopause, they allow the current system to go unchallenged. We need institutional adjustments to the facts of life, not denial of the facts!

  16. @15 Chamomile,
    I don’t disagree that it’s a concern and as I wrote, fertility does decrease in our thirties, but I take issue with the way this story is framed and I don’t think the percentages are quite as clear as the ABC News link suggests. Are they including follicles? Fertile eggs? Accounting for differences across demographics? It’s incomplete and misleading reporting.

    But I agree with your point. In academia the system needs to fundamentally change if we’re to encourage more women to enter the workforce.

  17. gillt

    Sheril: “There are so many layers to this issue, it would be impossible to list all of them in a blog post, so I think what’s most important for everyone to remember is relatively simple: To actually make a baby, it takes just one.”

    There’s no need oversimplifying to make your point.

    Your final statement (message?!) swings too far in the other direction. There’s a good deal more to it than one egg, one baby.

  18. @gus, yes … yes I did. I believe in immunization with intelligence and knowledge of how to do it for your baby — one size does not fit all, and, just like GMO foods, we don’t know how they will affect a certain genetic makeup of any one person/child or even a group with similar genetic signatures. Informed decisions by the parents when and if to immunize is “immunization with thought.”

    @Chamomile … I think more and more the balance of the male/female roles in both our institutions are changing how we can integrate while maintaining our natural instinctive differences upon which our survival depends. Yes, the old structure is crumbling away slowly, but I have seen it change more in the past 7-8 years than ever before — but its so important to keep the dialog going! Especially in the fields where its been harder to achieve a real workable solution in some very ‘established’ structures!

    @gillt … I think Sheril had it right too — if a baby needs to be born, a baby will be born. For everyone else, there was a baby that already needed to be born that is alive and needs a mom … that’s life balancing itself out.

  19. Busiturtle

    Elaine,

    Perhaps to what gillt is referring is that the biology of making a baby is pretty straightforward and really only demands 5-minutes of one’s time at the opportune moment. The more important question is who raises the child?

    Making babies is fun. Raising them so they become productive members of society demands a lot of work and sacrifice. To her credit Sheril appears to understand this and is thus caught in the dilemma of when to choose motherhood and how long to put her professional career on hold.

  20. gillt

    I don’t think the biology of baby-making is straightforward. There’s genetics, age, hormones, etc. of both partners to consider. The research the article over-hyped and Sheril under-hyped is testament to all that.

  21. jelena

    This article makes me think an organization believes we have a shortage of kids in the world. Or perhaps they are campaigning to drive women back to the home. Is it a misdirection to free up jobs for men, as with after WWII? We women need to better educate ourselves, our partners, and our children how we work so it isn’t so easy for researchers to sway opinion with articles like this.

  22. Why Bother

    Actually, I was thinking thank goodness. No need for birth control since I’m over thirty. But sadly, no. I have a friend nearing forty who conceived naturally for the first time. She had twins.

    Medical studies now days, well the ones getting most of the attention anyway, seem to be a load of horse crap. It’s all about fear, and trying to push people to do what they want them to do.

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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.com For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.

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