by Patrick Cox
August 23, 2017
For decades, studies have been showing sperm counts falling. Not everyone believed them, and that includes me. But a new study provides powerful evidence that male fertility is, in fact, falling fast all over the world.
This is not just an interesting bit of scientific trivia. It could have an enormous impact on all our lives for reasons that may not be obvious. Even if you’re childless and plan to stay that way, dwindling sperm counts could badly derail your retirement plans.
The new meta-analysis focused on 185 of the most scientifically rigorous studies involving more than 40,000 men. Published in Human Reproduction Update, it involves scientists from multiple respected universities. They’ve concluded that sperm counts have fallen by more than half since the 1970s. That’s a dramatic decrease of 1.4% a year between 1973 and 2011.
If this trend continues in a linear manner, the world would reach complete male infertility in 32 years. A BBC story about the study suggests that possibility. It is titled, “Sperm count drop ‘could make humans extinct.’”
That’s not going to happen. We’re not going to see the science-fiction scenario set forth by P.D. James in her classic dystopian novel, The Children of Men. Still, the result of serious declines in sperm counts could be devastating.
Falling Birthrates Compound the Problem
There are practical and financial impacts of a world with very few young people and a growing aged population. The US healthcare and overall budgetary crises are the result of the inverted demographic pyramid. As the CBO has pointed out, aging is driving the deficit and debt while the number of people paying the bills is falling.
It may be coincidence that US births fell below replacement rate just as sperm counts began to plummet. On the other hand, it may not be. When I ponder this phenomenon, I’m forced to marvel that total fertility rates have fallen faster as we approached population levels that might pose real problems.
It’s almost as if there is some unseen mechanism in place reducing birth rates at exactly the right point in history. It certainly had nothing to do with the overpopulation activists. Before they came on the scene, birthrates were falling.
Yes, a one-child policy was enforced in parts of China. Birthrates were already falling globally however. Living longer lives and escaping poverty reduces birth rates. Period.
The world is further into this process than most people know. Globally, our species has reached peak babies. In places like Japan, Germany, and Spain, native populations are shrinking. From now on, each generation will be smaller than the last. Within decades, the human species will be depopulating.
This is an amazing and historically unprecedented phenomenon. It was first predicted and described by demographer Warren Thompson in the 1930s. Those who were worried about overpopulation should be breathing a collective sigh of relief. Unfortunately, falling birthrates come with a different set of problems.
In the old days, grandparents could count on the help of their families, including grandchildren, for in-home care. There were almost always far more grandchildren than grandparents, reducing the load on each member of the younger generations.
For the first time in history, this has reversed. Think about modern long-lived families that practice a voluntary one-child-per-family policy. By definition, that is a fertility rate of 1, half that is necessary to keep population size stable. In two generations, four grandparents will share just one grandchild. This is the opposite of historical norms.
These days, the frail elderly tend to rely on insurance policies, pensions, and government programs instead of in-home family care. But younger people pay the taxes and premiums that support the aged. Simply put, there are no longer enough young people to keep the promises made to the elderly.
Already, some countries are defaulting on the promises made to the elderly. And this is why your retirement is at risk. If fertility rates fall further, the risk increases.
I write about this issue a great deal but only because it’s clear that most people, including policy makers, haven’t caught on. Look at Japan to see what the advanced state of this demographic change looks like. It’s not a happy picture.
Depopulating older societies struggle economically due to the rising costs of the aged. This reduces future economic prospects for younger people. Marriage rates then fall due to financial pessimism. Now, add to this dismal picture the possibility that sperm counts will continue to drop at their current rate.
Maybe P.D. James wasn’t so wrong after all.
The Role of Metabolic Disease
The sperm count study I referenced above contained several other bits of information that provide hope for a solution. One is that men with lower sperm counts have higher rates of disease and lower life expectancies.
The scientists who authored the paper offer various theories for falling sperm counts. I’m willing to predict that the primary answer is metabolic syndrome caused by increases in body fat. In fact, obesity rates took off in the 1970s when reductions in sperm counts were first noticed.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. Metabolic disease, the consequence of carrying extra adipose tissue, affects many aspects of health. We know the connection with type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, stroke, and more. Metabolic disease is the largest preventable cause of disease. Why wouldn’t it impact sperm counts and fertility?
In Japan and China, there are far fewer people who are visibly overweight than America. This might seem to disprove the theory that metabolic disorder is responsible for falling sperm counts. But Japan and China also suffer from high rates of metabolic disorder.
This is true of most populations with Asian genes, including American Indians. Asians develop metabolic disorders at lower body mass indices. I may have this problem myself due to some Native American heritage.
The good news is that scientists are on the verge of curing metabolic disorder, and probably obesity. There are several extremely promising approaches, but one of my favorites is brown adipose tissue (BAT). These are the fat-burning cells that keep children lean and free of metabolic disease. Animals given implants of BAT cells lose weight and recover from metabolic disorders like type 2 diabetes. AgeX, the new subsidiary of BioTime, has announced BAT therapy as a therapeutic goal.
My prediction is that BAT therapy would help solve the sperm count problem and slow metabolic aging. This would address the demographic imbalance from both sides. It would keep older people productive and financially independent longer. This would help create economic growth. It would also help couples who want to conceive.
Unfortunately, the US doesn’t yet seem to know that we have a demographic problem. If we did, more than a paltry fraction of one percent of the NIH research budget would be spent on anti-aging research.
Japan, on the other hand, knows it has a population crisis. The Japanese government has reduced regulatory obstacles to scientific solutions to its demographic dilemma. Hopefully, the nation with the oldest population will act to solve the problem of accelerated aging. If they do, they’ll bolster birthrates and our ability to fund programs for the aged. If not, it’s up to investors and scientists.