New York Times | The Dawning of Sperm Awareness

Men are embracing sperm health, while society is recognizing that fertility isn’t just about women… writes Nellie Bowles in The New York Times.

New York Times article featuring Trak about where did all the sperm go?
Photo illustration by Tracy Ma/The New York Times; Shutterstock (sperm and men), Getty Images (male reproductive system and men)

SAN FRANCISCO — Last summer, a meta-analysis of 185 studies in which semen was collected over the past 40 years indicated that sperm concentration seemed to have consistently and remarkably declined in the course of a generation.

Different clusters of people — urologists, anthropologists, men’s rights activists and start-up founders — became quietly concerned about the state of sperm. Quiet, probably, because Americans are more used to talking about women and fecundity. And also quiet because there has not been much research aimed at discovering if anything is actually happening.

“We’ve been looking for this for years,” Dr. Paul Turek said. “We were hoping it existed.”

Turek hopes to turn sperm panic into a tool for preventive health. He sees a moment in which we can convince young men to take better care of their health overall to see their sperm quickly improve.

“As we dive deep into sperm,” Dr. Turek said, “we find that lifestyle matters most.”

Low Sperm Quality Impacts More Than Just Fertility

Sperm panic began in July 2017, with a headline-grabbing finding: Sperm counts in Western men had dropped 59 percent between 1973 and 2011. Researchers had analyzed 185 studies involving 42,935 men who had provided semen samples. The study was a collaboration between researchers in the United States, Israel, Brazil, Denmark, and Spain. It opened a huge conversation about sperm and what might be happening to it.

And then, in terms of research, not much happened.

“The National Institutes of Health has been focused on males for so long, but reproduction was never considered a male problem,” said Shanna Swan, one of the study’s authors and a professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai’s department of environmental medicine and public health. Of the research community in general, she said, “They don’t want to know what they’re going to find.”

“It’s an area that makes people uncomfortable. It’s about sex. It’s about men,” Dr. Swan said. “You can get a lot further if you have a nice finding on autism or obesity.”

“There is a general feeling of ‘My God, there are too many people in the world already, who cares?’” Dr. Swan said. “One of our answers to ‘who cares?’ is to point out men with low semen quality die earlier than other men. They have more cardiovascular disease, they have more diabetes, they have more cancer.”

The study’s lead author, Dr. Hagai Levine, a former Israeli military epidemiologist now with Hebrew University-Hadassah School of Public Health, said sperm decline shows no sign of slowing down and stigma around male fertility could threaten the human species.

“This is a symbol of our inability to look at the future of mankind, and for what?” Dr. Levine said. “We may be like the Titanic approaching an iceberg.”

Dr. Levine said that it seems exposure to pesticides, obesity and smoking could contribute to low sperm count. He also suggested something more complex. “Social factors could definitely influence this,” he said. “We are animals. The social rank, the socioeconomic position, is important.”

Now Busy Men Can Measure, Grade and Freeze Their Sperm

In recent years, companies have been popping up with at-home sperm tests, sperm health scores and sperm cryobanking services including Trak Fertility.

Trak Co-Founder and CSO, Dr. Greg Sommer, started developing a small portable centrifuge as a biodefense researcher at Sandia National Labs for testing blood after a chemical attack when he realized it could have a consumer application. However, he wasn’t sure exactly what that application could be, yet.

“Early in the company, we were thinking, ‘What are we going to build?’” Dr. Sommer said. “Then it hit us, ‘Semen!’ At the time, very few companies were researching how to give men the ability to test sperm at home. It was a game changer,” he said. “It’s a whole new approach to semen testing that we’ve invented.”

New York Times Illustration on How To Use the Trak Kit

“The way it works is, you collect your sample, you put a few drops in, and it spins,” Dr. Sommer said. “We spin your semen sample at 7,500 r.p.m., and when it’s done it gives you a reading of your sperm count.”

Dr. Sommer and his colleagues founded Trak Fertility by Sandstone Diagnostics in Pleasanton, Calif. The company has raised $8 million in funding to bring these mini-sperm-spinning centrifuges into homes across America. The Trak device costs $199.99, runs on AA batteries and includes four tests. A two-test refill pack is $49.99.

Other sperm test competitors have since entered the market; however, Trak is the only at-home device that looks at two semen parameters and gives you feedback on how to improve based on your current lifestyle.

One thing all of these fertility start-ups can agree upon is now that sperm counts are dropping, it’s important to start getting informed about your fertility profile regardless of if you’re planning on starting a family tomorrow, next year, or even in the next five years.

The Sperm Debate. Are Low Sperm Counts a Problem?

Clinicians are split on how grave the situation is. Sperm tests are notoriously fickle, with counts swinging widely depending on behaviors like an evening in a hot tub or a weekend of heavy drinking.

Doctors and researchers who are skeptical of the findings argue that infertility would already be rising if sperm counts were really dropping so precipitously.

“If you had a decrease in sperm count in the 50 to 60 percent range, we would expect the proportion of men with severe male infertility to be going up astronomically,” said Dr. Peter Schlegel, the chair of urology at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian. “And we don’t see that.”

Others say the study’s science was sound and that it should be sounding an alarm.

“I do believe the meta-analysis,” said Dr. Michael Eisenberg, a urologist at Stanford Medical School who advises the at-home sperm test company Trak. “And we should be paying more attention.”

We, apparently, are not.

“There’s no funding. There’s none,” said Dr. Sarah Vij, who specializes in male infertility and andrology at the Cleveland Clinic. “When we try to develop a study, there just are not a lot of foundations out there looking to fund male fertility projects.”

For men today, Dr. Levine advises something simple, “Get your sperm checked. Every 18-year-old at some point takes blood tests — why not your sperm?” he said. “If you have a problem, you change your life accordingly. If you don’t, maybe you freeze it.”

According to Dr. Turek, who is also an adviser to Future Family, people waking up to the importance of sperm as a measure of health is good news — it means men will finally start thinking about preventive care. Low sperm counts and low motility could be a sign of bigger current or future health problems, he said.

“Men with low sperm counts don’t live as long,” Dr. Turek said. “Something wicked this way comes.”

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page D1 of the New York edition with the headline: Manosphere In a Panic: Are Your Swimmers In Peril? and online at The New York Times website. |Order Reprints




New York Times. Article Features Trak Fertility.

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