Reproductive Health: Is it a male issue?

Urologist Dr. Peter Chan is sounding the alarm bell when it comes to men’s reproductive health.

Like many women, men have been delaying fatherhood past the age of 35. And though the common belief was that only women needed to be concerned about the viability of their eggs as they age, Dr. Chan warns that men need to pay as much attention to their biological clock. “As men get older, the amount and the integrity of their sperm is compromised,” says Dr. Chan, who is the director of Male Reproductive Medicine at the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC). “This can contribute to infertility or, in some instances, increase the chances of fathering children with genetic hereditary issues such as Down’s Syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, haemophilia A, or Duchene muscular dystrophy.”

Dr. Chan points out that there are other factors contributing to male infertility. “We are seeing an increasing number of genital malformations in infants, and cases of testicular cancer among men between the ages of 18 and 35 are on the rise.”

Lifestyle and environmental toxins are also cause for concern. Tobacco smoke is toxic to sperm health, whether inhaled by a smoker or taken in second-hand. A wide range of ingredients found in hair products, plastics, pesticides, paints and mechanical grease can also negatively impact male fertility. Excessive exposure to heat in the general work environment or even from a laptop placed near a man’s crotch can negatively affect testicular function, resulting in abnormal semen. 

 “It is not certain whether this decline is the result of more men becoming infertile or that attention by patients and their doctors has improved,” says Dr. Chan. “Irrespective, the point remains that many men are finding out they can’t biologically father children.”

Dr. Chan is urging men and their partners not to despair if they find they are encountering challenges. Rather, he is focused on the good news: “The last two decades have seen dramatic advancements, including improving the odds of fertilizing an egg with just a single healthy sperm.” Dr. Chan has been at the forefront of some of the new discoveries and techniques that assist men who hope to become fathers, particularly men who have undergone radiation and chemotherapy treatments for cancer.

Despite these remarkable improvements in identifying the causes of, and treating, male infertility, Dr. Chan is pushing for us all to take a more proactive approach, beginning with men making the first move in testing their fertility. “It’s much simpler, quicker and less invasive to evaluate the fertility status of a man than a woman.”

Dr. Chan is also confident we can have a constructive impact on the causes of male infertility by avoiding the common risk factors such as smoking, stress, obesity, drugs and ensuring regular check-ups with a doctor. But his call to action goes beyond living a healthy lifestyle; he acknowledges the need to understand and raise awareness of the impact environmental toxins can have on our health, and on male fertility. “As informed citizens, we can pressure our government to ensure good science drives healthy policy,” he says, citing the successful banning of biphenol-A (a component used in plastic) in Canada and the U.S., Dr. Chan says that pressuring politicians can make a positive difference.

He also hopes that people will lighten up and speak about men’s health issues without embarrassment. “The more open we are discussing men’s health with friends and family,” says Dr. Chan, “the more we can break the taboos and address the issues that affect fertility and the general well-being of men more directly.”