If you get squeamish around needles but you want some insight into how your body is doing these days, here’s an alternative: Ejaculate in a cup. According to a 2018 study out of Italy that evaluated 5,177 male partners of infertile couples, if you have a lower than average number of swimmers (less than 39 million per ejaculate), that’s a clear indication that there other, not so great things, going on with your body, too.
“Our study clearly shows that low sperm count by itself is associated with metabolic alterations, cardiovascular risk and low bone mass,” Alberto Ferlin, the study’s lead investigator, told Science Daily. “Infertile men are likely to have important co-existing health problems or risk factors that can impair quality of life and shorten their lives.”
This is hardly the first time researchers have linked sperm count to a man’s health, either. According to a 2014 study, sugar-sweetened drinks (that are undeniably bad for your health) had a negative impact on the quality of semen and reproductive hormone levels in young men.
Last year, our American cousins wrote about the ways in which stress can affect the quality of your sperm, and though researchers have yet to understand how stress affects your sperm, there are some theories: “It may trigger a surge in cortical steroids, which alters your testosterone levels and the way in which your sperm is produced,” Jamin Brahmbhatt, a board-certified urologist and infertility specialist, explained to us. Another theory has to do with the number of free radicals in your body. “Free radicals induce impairment of testicular function and cause a marked reduction in number and quality of sperm production,” Brahmbhatt added.
This most recent study, however, boasts the most comprehensive evidence for how sperm count indicates serious health risks. Specifically, Ferlin and his team found that men with lower sperm counts were 1.2 times more likely to have more body fat as well as higher blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
This isn’t to say that low sperm counts are making dudes sick — rather, they’re symptomatic of (perhaps undiagnosed) existing conditions. As Allan Pacey, professor of andrology at the University of Sheffield, told the BBC, “There is currently no suggestion that male subfertility causes health problems later in life, and in my opinion, it is more likely that they both have a common cause.”
The Mayo Clinic has cited health issues like obesity, drug use and emotional stress as possible explanations for why a man might have fewer swimmers, which is why Brahmbhatt told us that one way to treat issues of low sperm count is to adjust your lifestyle. “If we find the patient is morbidly obese or a pack a day smoker, we can suggest they make changes in their daily lifestyle and track their sperm count and motility with certain tests,” he explains.
To that end, Ferlin hopes that men, along with their fertility doctors, treat the issue of having a low sperm count more seriously, and as potentially more severe than just not being able to have kids. “Men of couples having difficulties achieving pregnancy should be correctly diagnosed and followed up by their fertility specialists and primary care doctor because they could have an increased chance of morbidity and mortality,” he told Science Daily.
Now if we could convince men to see a doctor regularly — and not just when they’re worried about the functionality or the colour of their baby-making juices — visits to urologist might look less like this: