Fertility crisis myth? Rates unchanged, even though more waiting to have kids

The percentage of adults of childbearing age getting fertility treatments, such as IVF, hasn't changed since 2002, a new report finds. Ben Birchall

Women are delaying marriage and childbirth, but infertility rates in the United States haven’t really changed in 20 years, federal researchers reported Wednesday.

And even more surprising – it doesn’t appear to be because more people are being treated for infertility, the National Center for Health Statistics finds. The percentage of adults of childbearing age getting fertility treatments hasn’t changed since 2002.

“Infertility rates have come down a little bit,” says Dr. Anjani Chandra, researcher at the NCHS, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “That surprises people because they think it is going up. In fact, it really hasn’t been the case.” 

Chandra and colleagues looked at data from the National Survey on Family Growth, in which more than 22,000 people were interviewed face to face between 2006 and 2010. The survey was also done in 1982 and 2002.

The surveys showed that 8.5 percent of married women aged 15 to 44 were infertile in 1982 – defined as having been married and having unprotected sex for 12 months without becoming pregnant. This fell to 6 percent of the same age group, married or unmarried, in 2006-2010. 

When they added in women who could finally get pregnant but who miscarried before giving birth, the number rose to 11 percent

“Contrary to popular perceptions based on infertility service use and media coverage about biological clocks, we still don’t see that,” Chandra told NBC News.

It hasn’t changed for men, either.

“Some form of infertility ... was reported by 9.4 percent of men aged 15–44 and 12 percent of men aged 25–44 in 2006–2010, similar to levels seen in 2002,” Chandra’s team writes in the report.

One obvious answer would seem to be increased use of fertility treatments. Since 1982, in vitro fertilization or IVF has been perfected, and more than 163,000 treatments were done in 2011 – just about double the number done a decade before. Federal law requires doctors and clinics to report fertility treatments and success rates to the CDC.

But this data doesn’t show whether 163,000 separate people were treated, and the new statistics suggest that in fact more people aren’t being treated. Instead, individuals may be undergoing more treatments in the same year, says Chandra.

That’s because the percentage of women who have ever gotten fertility services was the same in 2006-2010 as compared to 2002 – 11.9 percent in both times.

Dr. Richard Reindollar of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine said the findings were encouraging.

“Even though the ages at which women in the United States have their children have been increasing since 1995, the percentage of the population suffering from infertility or impaired fecundity has not increased,” Reindollar said in a statement.

Studies clearly show that fertility goes down with age. And studies also clearly show that women are delaying marriage and childbearing. According to the CDC, the average age at which a woman has her first baby has risen from 21.4 in 1970 to 25 in 2006 and 25.6 now. And the annual birth rate is the lowest it’s been since 1998 at 6.3 births per 100 women aged 15 to 44.

So there are two possibilities that would explain the data– either the same couples are simply getting treated more often than in past years, or women older than 44 are getting more infertility treatments, Chandra said – or both.

“Because the survey stops at age 44, we are missing some of it,” she said. Another report coming out later this year will answer some of those questions, she said.

Dr. Mylene Yao, a former Stanford University fertility expert who founded Univfy, a private company that predicts fertility treatment success, says the numbers aren’t necessarily surprising. She believes people might not be paying attention to their fertility. “There still needs to be a lot of work done to raise awareness of reproductive health,” Yao said.

But Melinda Becker, a 45-year-old Washington, D.C. resident who gave up trying to have children five years ago, disagrees. Perhaps, she said, people believe there’s a fertility crisis because so many clinics advertise and because people talk so freely about an issue that was kept very private in years past. 

“I think everyone’s talking about it all the time,” said Becker, who asked that her true full name not be used for privacy reasons. “It’s not something to be ashamed of any more.”