Tears start to course down the cheeks of my patient, her immediate response to the message I just conveyed to her. Minutes before, with great angst anticipating the depressing effect my words will have on her, I proceeded to explain how her FSH was slightly elevated and her antral follicle count was a disappointing 3-6 follicles. I was careful to say that though this is a screen that correlates with a woman’s fertility, sometimes a woman may be more fertile than suspected based on the hormone tests and ovarian ultrasound. I also said that even when the tests accurately show diminishing ovarian reserve (follicle number), we are often successful in achieving a pregnancy and obtaining a baby through in vitro fertilization especially when age is not a significant factor.
These encounters I have with patients are more frequent than they should be. Unfortunately, many women delay seeking help in their efforts to conceive until their age has become significant both because they have fewer healthy genetically normal eggs and because their ability to respond to fertility drugs with numerous mature eggs is depressed. Women often do not realize that fertility drops as they age starting in their 20s but at an increasing rate in their 30s and to a point that may often be barely treatable in their 40s.
A common reason women delay seeking help is the trend in society to have children at an older age. In the 1960’s it was much less common that women would go to college and seek a career as is typical of women today. The delayed childbearing increases the exposure of women to more sexual partners and a consequent increased risk of developing pelvic inflammatory disease with resulting fallopian tube adhesions. When patients have endometriosis, delaying pregnancy allows the endometriosis to develop further and cause damage to a woman’s ovaries and fallopian tubes. They are more likely to develop diminished ovarian reserve at a younger age due to the destruction of normal ovarian tissue by the endometriosis. Even more important is that aging results in natural depletion of the number of follicles and eggs with an increase in the percentage of these residual eggs that are unhealthy and/or genetically abnormal.
Diminished ovarian reserve is associated with decreased inhibin levels which decreases the negative feedback on the pituitary gland. FSH produced by the pituitary is elevated in response to the diminished ovarian reserve and inhibin levels unless a woman has a cyst producing high estradiol levels which also lowers FSH. This is why we assess estradiol levels at the same time as FSH. Anti-Mullerian Hormone (AMH) can be tested throughout a woman’s menstrual cycle and levels correlate with ovarian reserve. Early follicular ultrasound can be performed to evaluate a woman’s antral follicle count. The antral follicle count also correlates with ovarian reserve.
By screening women annually with hormone tests and ultrasounds a physician may assess whether a woman is at high risk of developing diminished ovarian reserve in the subsequent year. Alerting a woman to her individual fertility status would allow women to adjust their family planning to fit their individual needs.
Aggressive fertility therapy may be the best option when it appears that one is running out of time. Ovulation induction with intrauterine insemination, MicroIVF and IVF are all considerations that speed up the process and allow a patient to take advantage of her residual fertility.
With fertility screening of day 3 estradiol and FSH, AMH and early follicular ultrasound antral follicle counts, the biological clock may still be ticking but at least one may keep an eye on it and know what time it is and act accordingly.