Young men with fertility issues may face other health problems later in life, research published Wednesday in the journal Fertility and Sterility suggests.
Vascular, heart and skin disease, as well as hypertension, are among the ailments linked to poor semen quality in the Stanford University study, which analyzed nearly 9,400 men, ages 30 to 50, who visited a fertility clinic.
“This could be a great opportunity for young men to get a window into their future health,” study author Barry Behr, professor of OBGYN at Stanford University, and lab director of Stanford Medicine Fertility and Reproductive Health, told FoxNews.com. “Sperm cells move and are large, and we can quantify them. If this pans out to be true— which we believe it will— your sperm condition is a great surrogate marker for your overall health.”
Previous research suggests that obesity, smoking and cancer can impact fertility. In this study, scientists wanted to explore whether other conditions were linked with trends in sperm production.
Among the study participants, with a median age of 38, 44 percent attended the fertility clinic between 1994 and 2011 for a health problem unrelated to fertility.
After studying these men’s medical records, researchers observed that hypertensive disease, peripheral vascular, cerebrovascular disease and nonischemic heart disease displayed higher rates of semen abnormalities. For example, 56 percent of men without hypertensive disease had normal semen quality, but only 45 percent of men with hypertension had normal semen quality.
Poor semen quality was also linked to higher rates of skin disease— the association that Behr found most surprising. Despite the significance of hypertension and cardiovascular disease, those findings made sense, he said, because poor blood flow has been shown to influence sperm production.
“We’ve all seen this along the side of the road: When you see a line of trees, and maybe the tree at the end of the irrigation system isn’t nourished or fed with water as much as the rest will show lower viability. If you have increased pressure due to hypertension or vascular constriction, or issues with getting appropriate blood supply to the testicles, it’s analogous to not allowing the tree or the cells to get their full supply of nutrients to flourish.”
The study authors noted that although a link between semen quality and other health issues exists, knowing definitively whether semen quality is influencing the conditions— or whether the medications or conditions themselves are impairing sperm production— is unclear.
“Infertile men have lower testosterone levels than fertile men,” study author Michael Eisenberg, director of male reproductive medicine and surgery at Stanford University, told FoxNews.com. “Testosterone is important— it’s a biomarker for health. Maybe these men are on a different trajectory because of this impaired testicular function.”
Eisenberg noted that 10 to 15 percent of the DNA in a man’s body is devoted to reproduction, and most of these genes also have diverse functions in other bodily systems.
In their paper, researchers write that future studies may examine how treatments for hypertension and heart disease can be changed to improve male fertility. Analyzing whether treatments for cardiovascular disease themselves may impair semen production may also be beneficial. Cancer treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy can impact sperm production, Eisenberg noted.
However, the researchers’ findings still suggest that men who experience fertility issues may see their future health benefit by making dietary or fitness changes.
“I think that for a man who feels or seems otherwise healthy and has aberrant semen parameters,” Behr said, “it may provide additional motivation for the individual to drill more into their health assessment to make sure they don’t harbor a condition later in life that they may be able to change their lifestyle for.”