Infertility May Be Risk Factor for Later Heart Disease
There are several medical causes for infertility in men, including diabetes, high blood pressure, and neurological disorders. A recent study, conducted at Stanford University, finds that married, childless men have a greater risk of heart disease than those who were able to have children.
Dr. Michael Eisenberg, assistant professor of urology, and a team of researchers used data from a decade-long study of 137,000 men over the age of 50 who were members of AARP, a non-profit organization for older, retired adults. They specifically looked for married men who were childless because “in general, most married men will have the opportunity to reproduce. Whether they and their partner chose not to have children or whether there were some biological problems, we can't determine," said Dr. Eisenberg.
About 8% of the men in the cohort were childless.
Over the course of the ten-year follow up period, about 10% of the men died and one out of every five of these deaths were due to heart disease. Childless men had about a 17% higher risk of heart disease than those who were fathers. The more children a man had, the less likely he was to die of heart-related problems.
While the findings do not show that not having children causes heart problems in men, they do suggest that infertility may be a potential early warning sign of future heart trouble since it occurs at a younger age, the team reported in the journal Human Reproduction. "There is emerging evidence to suggest that infertility may be a window into a man's later health," said Dr. Eisenberg.
Primary infertility affects more than one in seven couples attempting their first pregnancy, writes Dr. John Dean, a specialist in sexual medicine who was not involved in the study. Among those experiencing difficulty with conception, male fertility is considered important in 40% of couples.
Eisenberg notes that low testosterone can increase the risk of all cause mortality and heart disease deaths. It can also cause HDL cholesterol level to drop. Heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes can also cause issues with erection and ejaculation, reducing fertility in men. Stress and anxiety can also have an impact on both fertility and heart disease.
It's possible that many other factors besides testosterone account for fathers' lower cardiovascular risk. "Maybe having children causes men to have healthier behaviors, so fathers will live longer," said Eisenberg. External factors that have common effects on both reproductive health and heart health include alcohol and tobacco use, medications used to treat chronic medical conditions, and environmental toxins such as phthalates or BPA.
There are a number of things that men can do to both help preserve fertility and prevent the future risk of heart disease. These include eating a healthy and balanced diet, getting regular exercise, maintaining an ideal body weight, smoking cessation, and stress reduction.
Michael L. Eisenberg, et al. Fatherhood and the risk of cardiovascular mortality in the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study Hum. Reprod. (2011) first published online September 26, 2011 doi:10.1093/humrep/der305