Infertility is one of those common yet deeply personal issues that many women still don't feel comfortable talking about -- which may explain why some of us seem a bit confused about how getting older affects our ability to achieve a healthy pregnancy.
A recent article in The New York Times discusses the phenomenon of 40-something women who think they're fertile, simply because they look youthful and healthy.
The takeaway, according to Dr. Jamie Grifo, Program Director at NYU Fertility Center, is that women need to learn the facts about fertility and aging.
"Just because you've done all the right things your whole life doesn't mean you're going to be fertile," he says. "Some women are very fertile at 40, some are infertile and the majority are in between."
When you're a fetus, you have 7 million eggs, Grifo explains. When you're born, you have 1-2 million. At puberty, you have 400,000; by age 30, 87 percent of those are gone; at age 40, 97 percent of those are gone. That leaves 12,000 eggs -- a lot -- but most of them aren't good, meaning the eggs are less viable and you're more likely to miscarry.
When you're 40, your chance of getting pregnant is about 2-4 percent per cycle -- that's not a high number, Grifo admits. But if it's any consolation, when you're 25, you only have about a 10 percent chance per cycle.
"You'll read in the media that it's 20 percent -- that might be the pregnancy rate, but it's not the baby rate," Grifo explains.
In one round of IVF (in vitro fertilization, the process by which egg cells are fertilized by sperm outside the body) at age 30, 60 percent make a baby. At 40, it's 28 percent. By 44, it's down to 6 percent, according to NYU data.
These figures may sound alarming, but there's no need to panic. If you're having trouble conceiving at any age, treatment options are available, from intrauterine insemination (IUI) to IVF to egg donors. Grifo suggests getting evaluated right away if you're over 40, rather than wasting six months not knowing if you have an issue.
Even better? Plan ahead. Obviously, you can't control when you find a partner (if you're looking for one), and you may not be ready to start a family right now. Plus, fertility isn't a one-sided equation -- men can have problems, too. But if possible, it's smart to start thinking about your fertility sooner rather than later.
"Make your plan rather than letting life happen to you," Grifo says, adding that women who are not ready to have a baby should consider egg freezing if they have the means, especially when they are under 35.
The Times article suggests that Hollywood stars who give birth after age 40 are misleading women to think that it's easier than it really is. It's true that celebrities -- like the rest of us -- rarely open up about fertility struggles. But Barbara Collura, Executive Director of RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association, says celebs are not to blame for women's confusion about fertility.
"It's easy to single out celebrities, when in reality our reproductive health knowledge in this country, whether you are a man or a woman, is terrible. If women knew more about their biological clock and their fertility potential, they would not need to rely on movie actresses to give them reproductive health information."
She also agrees that learning the facts is your best weapon against infertility at any age.
"It's not only important to understand your reproductive health, but to fully know the options that may be available to you," she says.