Women, Aging, Fertility, and Statistics

In the July/August, 2013 issue of The AtlanticJean M. Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University and author of The Impatient Woman's Guide to Getting Pregnant wrote the article, "How Long Can You Wait to Have a Baby?" which explored her experience in getting pregnant. She discusses her search for information in the popular press and scientific journals and this section of her article is below.

The widely cited statistic that one in three women ages 35 to 39 will not be pregnant after a year of trying is based on an article published in 2004 in the journal Human Reproduction. Rarely mentioned is the source of the data: French birth records from 1670 to 1830. The chance of remaining childless—30 percent—was also calculated based on historical populations.

In other words, millions of women are being told when to get pregnant based on statistics from a time before electricity, antibiotics, or fertility treatment. Most people assume these numbers are based on large, well-conducted studies of modern women, but they are not. 

Even some studies based on historical birth records are more optimistic than what the press normally reports: One found that, in the days before birth control, 89 percent of 38-year-old women were still fertile. Another concluded that the typical woman was able to get pregnant until somewhere between ages 40 and 45. Yet these more encouraging numbers are rarely mentioned—none of these figures appear in the American Society for Reproductive Medicine’s 2008 committee opinion on female age and fertility, which instead relies on the most-ominous historical data.

In short, the “baby panic” is based largely on questionable data. We've rearranged our lives, worried endlessly, and forgone countless career opportunities based on a few statistics about women who resided in thatched-roof huts and never saw a lightbulb.

Professor Twenge's article can be read here: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/07/how-long-can-you-wait-to-have-a-baby/309374/
Sue Hodge


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