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Asking One Question May Help Doctors Better Understand Infertility

by Lisa René LeClair

Photograph by Twenty20

Infertility is a complex phenomenon that many couples face when they're ready to have children. In fact, the problem is so widespread that some medical societies are calling it a "disease." Sadly, infertility's cause is still a mystery.

But new research hopes to shed some light on women's and infants’ health by interpreting the answer to this one simple question: Have you ever been sexually active for a year or more without using contraception and (without) becoming pregnant?

In a recent article published in Fertility and Sterility, “Parental Health Status and Infant Outcomes: Upstate KIDS Study,” Dr. Germaine M. Buck Louis, the former director of intramural population health research at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and now a dean at George Mason University, along with colleagues from the University at Albany and NICHD, shared results of their study.

After evaluating the overall health of parents, including infertility and infant outcomes, such as gestation and birth size (weight, length and head circumference), Buck Louis and colleagues determined that experience with infertility is directly linked to shorter gestation and diminished birth size.

Infertility was measured in three ways: (1) those who were ever sexually active for a year or more without the use of contraception and without becoming pregnant; (2) those ever requiring 12-plus months to become pregnant; and (3) those requiring 12-plus months to become pregnant with the pregnancy being assessed in this study. The most consistent findings were for definition No. 1.

For example, infants born to women who had experienced infertility weighed less (62 grams), were slightly shorter (0.33 cm) and had smaller (0.35 cm) head circumferences in comparison to women without infertility issues.

Another interesting observation: Women with a history of hypertension or asthma had shorter pregnancies and lighter infants than those without these chronic conditions.

“We undertook this study to improve our understanding of parental health status, infertility treatment and the health status of future generations,” Buck Louis wrote. “To our knowledge, this is the first study to include infertility in the context of other chronic diseases. Our findings suggest that infertility and chronic diseases may have long-lasting implications for infant health outcomes.”

Though additional research is needed before infertility can be fully defined, asking one simple question may be the best indicator we have, to date, of its association with birth size.

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