May 2017Research at the Lady Davis Institute

Men have a lot to learn about their own fertility

Canadian men—regardless of their age, education or income level—generally lack knowledge about the risk factors that contribute to male infertility, the first large-scale study of its kind has revealed. This finding is considered significant because of society’s tendency to place a disproportionate burden for infertility on women.

Research led by Dr. Phyllis Zelkowitz, Director of Research in the JGH Department of Psychiatry, found that men could identify only about half of the potential risks and medical conditions that are detrimental to their sperm count and, thus, their prospects of fathering children.

Among the men who were surveyed, risk factors such as cancer, smoking and steroid use were commonly known. Not on their radar, however, were the types of risks that can be mitigated by behavioural changes—for example, obesity, frequent bicycling and regularly using a laptop computer on one’s lap.

“Men are more reluctant than women to ask questions about their health, in general, so it stands to reason that they would be less well informed about their fertility,” explains Dr. Zelkowitz, who is head of research into the psychosocial aspects of disease at the Lady Davis Institute. Nonetheless, about a third of the men surveyed did express concerns about their fertility, and almost 60 per cent wanted to learn more about this issue.

Since most men express the desire for fatherhood at some point in their lives, “infertility can be devastating for people,” Dr. Zelkowitz says. “When men can’t have children, or have to undertake very expensive treatments, it can have a grave psychological impact. It can lead to depression and put severe stress on relationships.”

Rates of infertility have increased in the past 20 years. Greater awareness of risk factors and medical conditions associated with infertility can lead to early and preventive interventions to enable men to achieve their parental goals.

By shedding light on this issue, Dr. Zelkowitz and her collaborators hope to stimulate dialogue about male fertility and inspire health educators and healthcare practitioners to provide universal public education to promote reproductive health among men, beginning at a young age, so that they can take the necessary steps to protect their reproductive health.

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