Becoming a dad might be harder than you thought. In a new study of 4,867 Danish men over 14 years, approximately 15 percent of the men had low sperm quality that indicated a high risk of needing future fertility treatment if they wanted to father a child. And another 27 percent of the men had a higher risk of waiting longer to make a baby.
“We don’t know the exact reasons for the low semen quality, however, there is no doubt that it has to do with environmental exposures and our Western style of living,” says study author Dr. Niels Jørgensen, a chief andrologist at University Department of Growth and Reproduction in Copenhagen.
“No single chemical or lifestyle factor in itself can explain what we see,” Jørgensen says. “The current thinking is that it’s a ‘cocktail’ of exposures that together causes the problems.”
Step one to ensuring that your semen is safe: Watch your diet and exercise routine, advises Dr. Larry Lipshultz, a urology professor at Baylor College of Medicine. Less than stellar sperm quality is usually an accurate indicator of your overall health, he says. Overindulging in alcohol, being overweight, and smoking are all factors that could make your semen sub-par. (Plus, using your laptop could be shrinking your chances of having kids. Learn Why the Internet Is Killing Your Sperm.)
Estrogen mimics, like the common chemical BPA (bisphenol-A), also threaten your sperm. That could explain why men in rural, high-pesticide areas have lower sperm quality than men in more urban areas, says Lipshultz. But he stresses that infertility is not inevitable—staying lean and healthy can make your sperm thrive.
His advice? If you and the Mrs. have been trying for a kid without protection for a whole year, if she’s older than 35, or if you have risk factors (like a history with chemotherapy or testicular trauma), getting tested is the best plan.
But don’t go to just any walk-in clinic: Make an appointment with a specialist—your wife’s OB-GYN or a urologist—to get the most accurate results. If the thought of providing a semen sample in the doctor’s office makes you hesitant, bring a sample from home (after the required two to three days of abstinence). Just make sure to clear it with your doc first.
And even though in-vitro fertilization (IVF) is now fairly common for many couples hoping to start a family, Lipshultz suggests making it your last resort. Each IVF procedure runs around $20,000 without a guarantee of success, so a semen quality checkup and fertility evaluation will spare you a ton of cash. Plus, they’re both quick, easy, and you’ll get results in about a day.
If you’re worried that having kids just isn’t in the stars after several rounds of unsuccessful attempts to conceive, don’t give up. The process rarely happens quickly, says Lipshultz. Take your time and enjoy logging those extra hours in the bedroom.