Trying to conceive a child can be a long and stressful journey for many Americans. Questions about family history and the role of genetics in fertility often lead to discovery and testing that can help couples navigate this confusing and emotional time. So when should you seek professional help? The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) defines infertility as the inability to conceive after one year of unprotected sexual intercourse. That timeline is sometimes cut down to six months for women over 35.
What Role do Genetics Play in Fertility?
Although it has been estimated that nearly 50% of infertility cases are due to genetics, experts still don’t know what causes infertility in about 20% of women. However, conditions like endometriosis and PCOS can be genetic and can impact fertility.
Endometriosis occurs when tissue similar to that of the uterine lining grows outside of the uterus. It sheds and bleeds each month, but with nowhere to escape from the body, it can create a host of painful issues that include scarring and adhesions. There does appear to be a hereditary component with endometriosis: if you have a first degree relative (such as a sister or mother) with the condition, you are 5 to 7 times more likely to have it yourself.
In contrast, Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) affects the release of eggs during a woman’s menstrual cycle when the ovaries become enlarged and contain follicles that surround the eggs. All of this causes irregular functioning, and can sometimes manifest in infertility. And while there is an indication that this condition is likely hereditary, there is no specific PCOS gene. One study found that “24% of women with [PCOS] had a mother with PCOS and 32% of the women had a sister with the condition.” PCOS is relatively common among reproductive-aged women, with a prevalence of about 12%.
While these two conditions are common causes of infertility in women, abnormal genes or mutations in both males and females affect only about 5% of couples. Another factor to consider is early menopause, which can also be hereditary.
While most of the discussion above focuses on female reproductive health, male fertility challenges occur in nearly one third of infertility cases. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Male infertility is due to low sperm production, abnormal sperm function, or blockages that prevent the delivery of sperm.” Many other factors can play a role - illness, injuries, chronic disease and lifestyle choices can all contribute to fertility challenges.
Other Factors that Affect Fertility & Reproductive Health
There are also many factors that are under your control when trying to conceive a child. Maintaining a healthy weight, refraining from tobacco, alcohol, and drug use, and having a healthy diet can help increase fertility in both men and women. It is very common to conceive, even with potential fertility-affecting issues in one’s family. No matter what’s in your family’s history, the best way to reach toward your goals of parenthood is to work with a fertility specialist.
Whether you are just starting the journey of conceiving a child or you have been trying without success, there are many resources available to you to help build the family of your dreams. Wherever you find yourself on the path to starting or growing your family, know that you are not alone. Our specialists are ready to discuss your unique situation.