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Why Does Fertility Decrease with Age? New Study Reveals Findings
New study findings offer a promising path for us to both improve IVF success rates and potentially treat an underlying cause of infertility
November 16, 2021
It’s important that women, especially those considering egg freezing, understand that fertility does not begin declining at age 35. Studies of fertility understanding continuously conclude that most people don’t know the age of fertility decline. For example, in a 2016 survey of 1,000 young men and women, more than 80% of all respondents believe women’s fertility only begins to decline after they turn 35. As this lack of understanding can leave women with fewer options, studies and research on the underlying causes of fertility decreasing with age is very important.
Age is the single largest factor affecting a woman’s chance to conceive and have a healthy baby. A woman’s fertility begins to reduce when she reaches her early 30s, and even more so after the age of 35. As the risks of pregnancy complications and inability to conceive increases as women age, research is essential for further understanding of the underlying causes to why this is.
After discovering one of the causes of age-related female infertility, researchers at the University of Montreal Hospital Research Centre (CRCHUM) suggest that it will be possible in the future to improve the quality of the eggs of older patients by intervening on the cell cycle level.
In a study published in the journal Developmental Cell, CRCHUM researcher Greg FitzHarris and Aleksandar Mihajlovic, a postdoctoral fellow in his lab and first author of the study, reveal in aged mouse eggs (oocytes) that some chromosomes are slower to move during meiosis, a crucial phase of cell division.
These laggards contribute to an uneven chromosomal distribution and therefore to the formation of cells with an abnormal number of chromosomes. This abnormality, called aneuploidy, is one of the major causes of infertility and explains, in part, why older women have difficulty becoming pregnant and carrying a pregnancy to term. This is due to the risk of fetal aneuploidy rises with increasing maternal age.
In simpler terms, this study helped find that in aged eggs chromosomes tend to get slower during the meiosis process, increasing the risk of fetal aneuploidy, which is the presence of one or more extra chromosomes or the absence of one or more chromosomes.
Meiosis is the start of the process of how a baby grows. Normally, meiosis causes each parent to give 23 chromosomes to a pregnancy. When a sperm fertilizes an egg, the union leads to a baby with 46 chromosomes.
As meiosis is a crucial phase of cell division, the slowest chromosomes tend to not reach their destination, causing a woman to not get pregnant.
But if meiosis doesn’t happen normally, a baby may have an extra chromosome (trisomy), or have a missing chromosome (monosomy). These problems can either cause pregnancy loss or cause health problems in a child.
A woman aged 35 years or older is at higher risk of having a baby with a chromosomal abnormality. This is because errors in meiosis may be more likely to happen as a result of the aging process. Women are born with all of their eggs already in their ovaries and the eggs begin to mature during puberty. Any woman pregnant aged 35 or older may be referred for genetic counseling or testing.
The researchers of this study discovered how to artificially prolong meiosis with a chemical, allowing the slowest chromosomes more time to reach their destination during the process of meiosis.
Although, this discovery, which is still in the basic research stage and conducted in the laboratory on mice, could be used in the clinic to increase the performance of eggs used during in vitro fertilization. Of course, extensive efficacy, safety and security testing will be required before such an approach is adopted.
"To give the slowest chromosomes time to reach their destination, we artificially prolonged meiosis with a chemical. Using high-definition imaging techniques, we found that this slowing down before cell division limited aneuploidy," says Greg FitzHarris, a professor at Université de Montréal.
Funding for the study was provided by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research where almost one in six Canadian couples is affected by infertility. This number has doubled since the 1980s.
As meiosis is a crucial phase of cell division, the slowest chromosomes tend to not reach their destination, causing a woman to not get pregnant. The researchers of this study discovered how to artificially prolong meiosis with a chemical, allowing the slowest chromosomes more time to reach their destination during the process of meiosis. The study’s findings offer a promising path for us to both improve IVF success rates and potentially treat an underlying cause of infertility.
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