Are your parents or grandparents to blame if you’re having trouble getting pregnant? Can your family history influence your fertility, and what part can genetics play? It’s only natural to wonder whether fertility issues are genetic and have been passed on from your parents, and also to think about whether you could pass on a condition to your own children in the future.
Family history probably only plays a small role in your ability to conceive.The truth is that your family history is not the biggest factor or even one of the biggest factors that affect your fertility. Most conditions that cause infertility aren’t passed on. Factors such as poor egg quality or low egg reserves and blocked or damaged fallopian tubes can happen to anyone, regardless of family history.
The first thing to note is that there’s no infertility gene, so just because your mother had difficulty conceiving doesn’t follow that you will too. While certain conditions can be inherited and these can contribute to infertility, there is no absolute certainty that your family history might or might not be relevant.
Infertility is the inability to conceive after one year of unprotected sexual intercourse, but this strictly applies if you are under 35 years old. If you’re a woman over 35 years and haven’t gotten pregnant within six months of trying, it’s time to consult a fertility specialist that can help you determine the possible causes of infertility.
Many factors contribute to infertility. In women, a common cause is an ovulation disorder. Polycystic ovarian syndrome is a common cause of not ovulating. Family history can play a role in PCOS which can impede conception, and it does tend to run in families. So, if your mother had PCOS, you may be more likely to have PCOS. And it could be playing a role in your ability to conceive.
Infertility could also be the result of other problems with the reproductive organs, such as blocked fallopian tubes that may be due to endometriosis, one of the most common causes of infertility, and it’s true that endometriosis can be hereditary.
With endometriosis, the tissue normally found in the lining of the womb develops elsewhere in the body, including the ovaries and fallopian tubes. As the tissues thicken and break down each month, pain, swelling and scarring may result. Endometriosis is one of the few conditions linked to infertility that can be passed down. Uterine fibroids (growths of the muscle of the uterus) can also be a culprit. Both endometriosis and uterine fibroids can run in families.
Problems with ovulation are a greyer area, as they can be inherited – but this isn’t always the case. For example, PCOS can sometimes be hereditary, but problems caused by diet or lifestyle,which can also have an effect on ovulation, aren’t genetic in any way.
Of course, you should be aware that age is a big contributing factor for women. The likelihood that you will become pregnant during any particular menstrual cycle begins to decline when you are in your early 30s and as you age, the number and quantity of your eggs decline.
It’s often believed that male fertility isn’t inherited and that lifestyle and environment are much more important to take into consideration. In men, the amount or health of the sperm is the most likely culprit for infertility. Men can carry genetic disorders such as loss of part of the Y chromosome or extra chromosomes as a cause of low sperm counts. These disorders can be passed on to their offspring. So, there may – or may not – be a link between poor sperm quality and genetics.
The bottom line is that fertility issues amongst previous generations of your family aren’t going to decide your own fertility in most cases. While there are a few conditions that can be passed down which may affect your ability to conceive, try not to worry too much about your parents’ medical history – after all, they successfully gave birth to you. If you’re currently trying to get pregnant and are finding it tricky, consult a competent fertility specialist.
If you’ve been trying unsuccessfully for a number of months to get pregnant, it may be time to see an expert. Your care provider can assess you for a number of medical conditions that may be at the root of your inability to conceive and provide options for how to proceed.
It is helpful to let your provider know about your family history, including PCOS, endometriosis, fibroids, early menopause, developmental delay in males, and low sperm counts. You and your partner can also undergo screening to assess your risk of passing down a genetic condition to your future offspring.
While a family history of many genetic conditions may not interfere with your ability to get pregnant or carry a pregnancy to term, you may still want to have that knowledge. Genetic counselling can give you a clearer picture.