Women have been warned against relying on 'over-the-counter' home fertility tests to gauge whether they can afford to delay starting a family. Scientists and doctors cautioned that such tests may provide false hope, encouraging women that they have several years of fertility left without looking at all the important factors.
Women are born with their complete supply of eggs for their lifetime contained within their ovaries. Over time this supply steadily diminishes, eventually leading to the menopause when the supply is exhausted. Home fertility tests, or 'ovarian reserve' tests, cost as little as £25 to £180 and use a blood or urine sample to estimate the number of eggs a woman has left by measuring her levels of a hormone called follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). As the number of eggs falls, the level of FSH in the woman's blood rises, and so the information can be used to predict how many child-bearing years a woman might have left.
However, fertility experts are concerned as they feel these tests do not offer a complete picture. Such tests do not give any information about the quality of the eggs or other factors that may be crucial for fertility. Stuart Lavery, a consultant gynaecologist at the IVF unit at Hammersmith hospital, London, explained: 'The concern with over-the-counter tests is that although they are helpful, because they focus the mind on fertility, they can also give false reassurance. If the fallopian tubes are blocked or the partner doesn't have fabulous sperm, it may be giving you false hope'.
These concerns were raised after research presented at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine's annual meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, US, provided evidence that the same tests may be useful indicators of the likelihood of successful IVF when used in a clinical setting. A study at the Advanced Fertility Centre of Chicago used FSH tests in conjunction with ultrasound examinations that also estimate the size of a woman's egg reserve to predict the fertility of 1,380 women under the age of 35 who were undergoing IVF. IVF was successful in 59 per cent of women with normal results in both tests compared to 35 per cent of women with abnormal FSH levels and just 9 per cent of women who had abnormal results in both tests.
Ovarian reserve tests are routinely used in women over 35 years old considering IVF in the UK, and the new study indicates it may also be useful for younger women to help them decide whether to pursue the often costly procedure. Dr Todd Deutch, managing director of the Advanced Fertility Centre of Chicago, emphasised that this did not mean the tests were good indicators for women trying to conceive naturally. He said: 'I think relying on these tests to gauge fertility generally... is not a good extrapolation of this data. These tests don't tell the whole story'.