Campaigns have been going strong in the last few decades to try and encourage pregnant women to avoid alcohol. Fetal alcohol syndrome and other potential birth defects have been highlighted to a point where watching episodes of Mad Men makes most of us cringe.
But researchers may have come up with yet another reason women should avoid alcohol — do they want to be grandmothers or not?
From CNN blogs:
Researchers in Denmark found prenatal exposure to alcohol may lead to long effects on a fetus’ sperm quality.
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More than 20 years ago, nearly 12,000 pregnant women in Denmark answered questionnaires about their health and lifestyle, including how much alcohol they were consuming. About five years ago, researchers tracked down 347 adult sons (ages 18-21 years) of those women and tested their semen and blood.
According to the Mayo Clinic, a sperm count of 40 million semen per milliliter indicates increased fertility. This new study found when moms drank four to five alcoholic beverages per week during their pregnancy, their sons later had sperm concentrations of about 25 million per milliliter, which was about 32 percent lower compared with offspring of expectant mothers who did not drink alcohol during their pregnancy, according to lead study author Dr. Cecilia Ramlau-Hansen.
No one seems to be completely sure how the two are affecting each other, but they do seem fairly certain there is a correlation. Time Magazine reports:
as Allan Pacey, a senior lecturer in andrology at the U.K.’s University of Sheffield, pointed out to the BBC, while the study raises questions about the relationship between prenatal alcohol exposure and developmental complications impacting male fertility, it isn’t entirely clear that the link between routine alcohol consumption during pregnancy and lower semen quality is direct. As he explains to the BBC:
“I don’t think we can be certain that alcohol is necessarily the bad thing here — it could be a surrogate marker for something else — but clearly there is some kind of relationship.”
In other words, could it be, for example, that women who drink during pregnancy might be more likely to expose their sons to other potential hazards — or be exposed to such hazards themselves — that could impact testicle development or fertility? Whatever the missing dots in the connection between lower sperm count and maternal alcohol consumption during pregnancy, the researchers are hopeful this initial study opens the door for future research and a better understanding of the factors that influence the quality of semen.
Still, there are some limits to the study, as the British National Health Services (NHS) news site points out.
- As the researchers say, ‘the participants were selected according to levels of maternal smoking during pregnancy’. Carrying out a post hoc analysis that was not the primary aim of the study increases the risk of chance findings. This may be particularly problematic in this instance as the initial research had a preference for selecting women who smoked and therefore may not have been a typical representative sample of pregnant women.
- Although the cohort of pregnant women was very large (11,980), there were only a total of 347 sets of mothers and sons across the four categories of alcohol consumption analysed. With this small number there is a high possibility of chance findings, particularly with the association found for drinking more than 4.5 drinks a week as there were only 38 women and their sons in this category. The findings based on the analyses of these small numbers may be by chance.
- Additionally, only half of the men invited to participate chose to do so. There may be important differences between the population studied and those who chose not to participate.
- An association was found between higher and drink consumption and decreasing sperm concentration, semen volume and sperm count. However, these relationships were not completely clear, with the highest values being in sons of mothers who drank 1-1.5 drinks a week rather than in those who drank more or less than this. There was also no relationship with hormone levels, sperm motility or sperm morphology. Therefore the actual implications of these findings are not clear.
- It is not known whether any of the differences in sperm quality seen across the groups would cause any actual fertility problems for the man.
- Alcohol consumption was assessed at the end of pregnancy. It is unclear whether the answer reflected the whole of the pregnancy, or just at the time of assessment. Also with any assessment like this, the number of drinks and size and strength of a drink will mean different things to different people.
- There is a possibility that other confounders have not been adjusted for or not fully adjusted. For example, the reporting of alcohol consumption by the men themselves was adjusted for but there may have been insufficient data to do this reliably.
In other words, a study is sometimes just a study.
Should pregnant women go celebrate with a glass of wine, then? Not if they still want to decrease their chances of increased miscarriage and possibility of harm to the unborn child, according to the NHS.
Mini Roundup: With new egg freezing technologies, lots of women can hold off on having children until later. But hopefully they will chose to have them eventually, since apparently having children is like having a mini-Sherpa!
June 30, 2010
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