While a low sperm count and problems with sperm quality are huge hurdles for couples who are trying to get pregnant, a new study shows that men with low sperm counts are also at increased risk of illness. The study of 5,177 men in Italy found that those with low sperm counts were 20% more likely to have more body fat, more "bad" cholesterol and higher blood pressure – all factors that increase the risk of developing diabetes, heart disease and stroke. They were also 12 times more likely to have low testosterone levels. Dr Alberto Ferlin, from the University of Bresci, who led the study, said: "Infertile men are likely to have important co-existing health problems or risk factors that can impair quality of life and shorten their lives. "Fertility evaluation gives men the unique opportunity for health assessment and disease prevention." The study’s authors say that men with low sperm counts should be actively checked for other potential health problems, which may have a greater chance of being rectified if treated earlier. However, the authors of the study stressed that their findings did not prove that low sperm counts cause metabolic problems, merely that the two are linked in some way.
Between 1973 and 2011, sperm counts among western men have more than halved, according to research, but the reason for the decline remains unclear. Researchers analysing nearly 200 studies involving men from North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand found that sperm concentration has decreased 52.4% in less than 40 years, while total sperm count has decreased by 59.3% over the same period. Hagai Levine, an epidemiologist and lead author of the study from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said: “The results are quite shocking.” While there are now various infertility treatments that can help to address such a decline, little has been done to identify the root cause. Low sperm counts, for example, could be associated with lifestyle choices and indicate poorer health among men in general. “This is a classic under the radar huge public health problem that is really neglected,” said Levine. The most worrying part of all, he said, is that if the trend continues as it has done, humans would eventually become extinct. Interestingly, no significant decline was witnessed in South America, Asia and Africa, but then far fewer studies have been conducted in these places, so there is much less data to analyse. The findings of the study were published on July 25 in the journal Human Reproduction Update.