Can a New Screening Catch Fertility Issues Earlier?

A pregnant women receives a visit from a midwife.  (Wikimedia Commons)

Around 10 percent of women may have a biological clock that ticks even faster than normal.

These women, whose ovaries are older than their actual age because of something called premature ovarian aging (POA), often don’t know there are any issues until they are already having problems getting pregnant. By then, the only options left may be expensive procedures like in vitro fertilization (IVF) or using an egg donor.

Ideally, these women would have a way to find about their fast-aging ovaries before they experience fertility issues. This is where a new set of tests from a startup called What’s My Fertility comes in.

What's My Fertility offers three blood tests, including a genetic test, as well as a questionnaire to help determine if a woman is at a higher risk for fertility troubles. If she is, then her doctor can do regular screenings to figure out when her number of eggs is likely to fall.

The questionnaire helps shed light on a patients' family history. If her mother or sister has POA, then she is at a higher risk for it too. Another factor is whether the patient has an autoimmune disease, like lupus. Women who have these diseases or who have relatives with them are at higher risk for POA as well.

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Still another part of the screen is to look at a woman’s FMR1 gene. There are certain versions, or alleles, of this gene that can put women at a higher risk for POA. But like the other factors, these different gene versions are not a for sure thing. If you have them, you won’t automatically have trouble having children later in life. You’ll just be at a higher risk.

Will Women Be More Proactive?

In theory, women can then be more proactive about their fertility. She might decide to freeze her eggs or maybe have her first child at a younger age than she expected.

And experts say it isn’t just these 10 percent of women who need to know more about their fertility.

Women's fertility becomes more and more of an issue as women wait longer and longer to have kids.  (CDC)
Women's fertility becomes more and more of an issue as women wait longer and longer to have kids. (CDC)

According to Lynn M. Westphal, MD, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Stanford University Medical Center, many women underestimate how hard it is for the average woman to get pregnant in their late thirties or early forties. They often arrive in her office with limited options.

That's unfortunate given that a simple blood test can determine a woman’s ovarian reserve (OR), a scientific way of determining how many good eggs a female patient has left. If more women took this test earlier, they might avoid problems later.

And of course these issues become more and more important as women wait longer and longer to have their first child. According to the CDC, the number of women waiting until their late thirties and early forties to have their first child continues to go up, year after year.

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What's My Fertility isn't the silver bullet solution, as there are many different factors that can affect a woman's fertility that aren't included in the screen. But it's a start, at least, in helping women initiate a conversation with their doctor -- and potentially improve their odds.

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