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Telling the time on a woman's biological clock

30 January 2006
By Dr Jess Buxton
genetics editor, BioNews
Appeared in BioNews 343
According to last week's newspapers, women will now be able to 'tell the time on their biological clocks', and 'see how long they have left to have children' - all for £179. The launch of a new home test kit to help women gauge their egg supply was accompanied by a predictable blaze of publicity. The headlines promised a solution to anyone alarmed by last September's news that women who wait until their thirties to start a family are 'defying nature and risking heartbreak'. It all sounds too good to be true - and unfortunately it probably is, being yet another example of media hype obscuring reality in medical science.

The 'Plan Ahead Kit' measures levels of three different hormones, to assess the number of eggs present in a woman's ovary over the following two years. It appears to be aimed mainly at women in their thirties, who want to know whether they can delay having children for a while longer. But - as many commentators writing in the weekend papers a couple of days later were quick to point out - there are many other factors that can affect fertility, apart from the quantity of a woman's eggs.

Female infertility can be down to endometriosis, past infections or blocked Fallopian tubes, as well as a shortage of eggs. Or, eggs may have chromosomal errors that cause recurrent miscarriages. Even with a sufficient supply of 'high quality' eggs, a fertile man is still required - preferably one whose desire to become a parent coincides with that of his partner. So while a kit to predict ovarian reserve might rule out one source of potential fertility problems, it cannot provide any information on a host of others. For this reason, a 'good' test result could lull women into a false sense of security, and possibly delay any medical treatment that might be required.

For most women, the chances of conceiving - whether naturally or through fertility treatment - drop sharply after the age of 35. But whilst on one page many newspapers urge women to remember this fact of life, elsewhere they carry stories of high profile celebrities seemingly defying nature with ease. These stories are offered as proof that women can 'have it all', whilst omitting details of any fertility treatment they may have had. To take a specific example, in yesterday's Sunday Times, India Knight wrote that 'one of the most active bees in my bonnet concerns the fallacy that if you are a woman it's fine to wait almost indefinitely before you start having children'. Yet in the accompanying magazine, a piece on the birth of twins to the 47-year-old actor Holly Hunter excitedly reported that 'the age for fashionable, first-time motherhood just got revised upwards'.

With such contradictory news coverage, it is perhaps not surprising that some people believe having babies over 40 is entirely possible, and perhaps even desirable - with IVF acting as a panacea for anyone who experiences problems conceiving. The truth is that for most women - those who don't have the money to pay for repeated cycles of fertility treatment using donated eggs - the tick of the biological clock becomes ever more insistent once they turn 35. IVF offers few solutions to this modern dilemma, but it does give infertile couples the chance to become parents. For these people, it is especially critical that nothing delays the diagnosis of any medical problems, and the start of their treatment.

20 December 2010 - by Dr Jay Stone 
An international team of scientists have identified new genetic variants that may help in the diagnosis and treatment of endometriosis....
9 November 2009 - by Rosie Beauchamp 
The discovery that variations in a gene called FMR1 could indicate the length of a woman's fertility by indicating the rate at which her egg supply will diminish may enable some women to find out how long they are likely to remain fertile. It is currently difficult to predict which women will experience premature ageing of their ovaries, but Norbert Gleicher at the Center of Human Reproduction in New York believes he will be able to study variations in a gene known as FMR1 - mutations in whic...
30 January 2006 - by BioNews 
A company in the UK has launched a new mail-order fertility test, which it says can help women to decide how long they can wait before having children. Called the 'Plan Ahead Kit', the test retails for £179, and is designed to work out the number of eggs that a...
5 January 2006 - by BioNews 
Scientists at the UK's Birmingham University have developed a fertility test kit that can be bought over-the-counter at chemists and used by couples at home. The Fertell test, which will cost about £80, takes less than an hour to work and is said to give accurate results in nearly all...
17 October 2005 - by BioNews 
A new test that can predict how many viable eggs a woman has left is set to be launched in the UK, the company Biofusion has announced. The kit, developed by Professor Bill Ledger of Sheffield University, will go on sale in January. It will measure the levels of three...
19 September 2005 - by Dr Jess Buxton 
Predictably enough, last week's short editorial in the British Medical Journal advising women that waiting until their thirties to start a family 'defies nature and risks heartbreak' generated reams of media coverage. The article itself blamed a 'distorted and uninformed view from society, employers and health planners', and called for...
19 September 2005 - by BioNews 
An editorial by three London-based senior clinicians in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) warns women about 'leaving it too late' to start a family. Susan Bewley, consultant obstetrician at Guy's and St Thomas'; Melanie Davies, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital at University College Hospital and...
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