Your weight, your height, BMI, even your cholesterol count are figures that most of us have come to take for granted. Yet another statistic is cropping up with alarming frequency among women: their egg count. Anyone in their thirties or early forties is likely to have been party to conversations with female friends about the state of their ovarian reserve. Tests to count their egg supply – a marker of fertility – have become de rigeur among women who have put motherhood on hold to focus on careers, travel and relationships.
I have friends for whom it is of palpable relief to learn through private tests that they have not left it too late to have a baby and can freeze eggs if they choose to; others who are distraught to discover that their egg supply is so limited it severely reduces their chance of conceiving.
They are not alone in clamouring to know where they stand. According to Dr Amin Gorgy, a fertility consultant at the Fertility and Gynaecology Academy in London , such tests are soaring in popularity. “Five years ago we had very few enquiries about egg freezing,” Dr Gorgy says. “And we had very few patients coming for egg count fertility checks – mostly due to lack of awareness about their biological clocks.”
What’s also changed is the age at which women are seeking to find out their egg count. Overall, enquiries about egg freezing and the number of women opting for egg checks has increased by 200 per cent in the last 12 months. But the sharpest rise is among younger women aged 25 to 30, among whom the trend has exploded by 300-400 per cent in a year. In fact, says Dr Gorgy, the average age of women opting for an egg count has dropped from 37 to 33.
Increased awareness about fertility issues has, he says, played a part. Surveys conducted by private clinics suggest that most women considered fertility checks purely based on medical reasons five years ago. But there has been a significant shift. Around 70 per cent of Dr Gorgy’s clients want to find out more about their fertility because of social reasons such as “their careers, or the fact they’re not confident about their current relationship”.
According to Dr Gorgy, the average woman’s egg count is in steady decline from childhood which means that, although she can be born with a supply of two million eggs, there are only around 300,000 left by the time she reaches a child bearing age. And the older a woman gets, the more likely it is that her remaining eggs are damaged or abnormal.
Keeping a check on supplies “is a good thing”, according to Dr Gorgy, who says his tests are two-pronged and involve a vaginal scan and a hormone assessment. Indeed, the latest ‘fertility phenomenon’ has been fuelled by companies in the US like Google, Apple and Facebook who are considering the controversial possibility that young female employees might be offered the novel perk of freezing their eggs.
For some women, though, the results can be devastating. “I met my husband when I was in my late thirties and we were desperate for a baby,” says 44-year-old Sara from London. “We went to a private clinic where they told me my egg count was low for my age and it prompted panic. Despite having IVF twice, we failed to conceive and I am convinced it is partly due to the stress of my egg count.”
Bodies such as the British Fertility Society say it is important for women to realise that egg counting is not an exact science, that an estimate is the best women can hope for – whatever their age. And, just as a low egg count doesn’t mean you can’t get pregnant, so freezing your eggs is not the same as freezing time. It won’t necessarily result in conception.
So is it better not to know? Some, like Sara, might argue that is the case. “It can bring an overwhelming sense of hopelessness before you start,” she says. “There’s something to be said for putting your faith in nature and not knowing.”
Dr Gorgy thinks otherwise. More women becoming aware of their “fertility potential” can only be a good thing, he says. “Many women are still coming in when it’s just too late,” Gorgy says. “If women want to freeze their eggs, they need to start thinking about it when they’re about 25 not 35. Medically speaking, younger eggs are better.”
Dr Amin Gorgy practises at the Fertility and Gynaecology Academy in London where they offer a range of fertility services including egg freezing and IVF.