Whenever I think about sperm (and who doesn't?), I picture that cartoon they show in health class. You know the one: the cute little tadpole with a squiggly tail, who's just so excited for the chance to compete in the reproduction hunger games. Lately, the internet has taken to wondering if a partner's sperm is strong enough — like sperm just needs to hit the gym to stay in shape. But knowing what to do if your husband has 'weak sperm' is actually really important. So how is sperm health really evaluated, outside of cartoons and Mens Health magazine?
"During a semen assessment, indicators of poor sperm can include misshapen sperm, sperm unable to move properly, and a sperm count of less than 15 million sperm per milliliter," explains Dr. Meike Uhler, Director of the Male Fertility Center of Excellence and a reproductive endocrinologist with Fertility Centers of Illinois. In fact, low sperm count causes 90 percent of all cases of male infertility, reported The New York Times.
Remember the cute little tadpole? That about describes a normal sperm. According to Uhler, abnormally shaped sperm may have short tails, small heads, double heads, or a double tail. In addition to having that tadpole shape, healthy sperm march straight ahead, and doctors assessing sperm health are on the look out for sperm that swim in circles, or don't move at all.
Apparently, a whole lot of sperm tend to be a little wonky. Uhler explains that "in an average male, only 14 percent of sperm have a normal shape, size, and ability to move properly." Of course, it only takes one to get the job done.
Pretty much everyone knows that men aren't quite so beholden to their biological clocks as women, but a man's age can still play a role in infertility. Uhler explains that older men are more likely to suffer from sexual dysfunction, and may also be dealing with age-related diseases, like obesity and diabetes — any of which can affect their ability to conceive. Of course, many men are fertile into their twilight years. As examples, Uhler points to Donald Trump (whose youngest was conceived when he was 60), and Charlie Chaplin (who had a child at the impressive age of 73).
Men can absolutely improve their sperm quality if they're trying to conceive, however. A poor diet may affect sperm count, and Uhler points to a study indicating that stress negatively impacts sperm health, too. So men going through a major life event — like job loss or moving — might suffer from lower sperm quality. Uhler lists quite a few other factors affecting fertility, from heavy smoking (a big one), BPA in water bottles, insufficient folic acid, and even too much time spent straddling a bicycle. But he also notes the upside:
"The positive news is that if healthy lifestyle changes are implemented and maintained, men can see their sperm health improve within 12 weeks . . . Regular exercise combined with healthy diet (whole grains, veggies, lean meats) and a normal Body Mass Index can transform male fertility."
So while strong sperm isn't really a thing, sperm health absolutely is — and it can influence a man's ability to conceive. If you're concerned about your husband's 'weak sperm' and fertility, you can consult a reproductive endocrinologist, who will likely evaluate sperm count, shape, and mobility before running other tests.