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Many Women Underestimate Fertility Clock's Clang

Kate Donnellon Nail, 43, works out regularly and eats well. She never thought she would have a problem conceiving a child. (www.kuperberg.com)

A new survey finds a big disconnect when it comes to fertility. The age women think they can conceive a baby is far different from what their bodies are actually capable of. This poses an increasing problem, as more women wait longer than ever to have children.

Kate Donnellon Nail never imagined she'd have trouble conceiving. For one thing, people always tell the San Francisco musician she looks much younger than her 43 years.

"I work out regularly, I have a personal trainer," she says. "I've been doing yoga for 15 years."

Nail's grandmother gave birth at 42, so she figured she was predisposed to "fabulous fertility." Doctors says there's no such evidence. But Nail is healthy and makes a point to eat well.

"Unfortunately," she says, "that doesn't always translate to those little eggs in your ovaries. They're not getting the message!"

When she was nearly 41, Nail and her husband went to a fertility doctor, who laid out the stark stats for someone her age.

The first thing they say is, 'Why didn't anybody tell me this?'
Barbara Collura, executive director of RESOLVE, the National Infertility Association

"They put them out on a piece of paper on the desk right in front of me and I was like, whoa. It just seemed so fashionable to have kids in your 40s, these days," she says.

It is. The fastest-growing rates of childbearing are for those 40 and older. But Nail says she didn't realize until she started trying to conceive herself that many older moms struggled, enduring costly fertility treatments.

According to a recent poll, Nail is far from alone. The survey, funded by the bio-pharmaceutical company EMD Serono, finds women do realize fertility declines with age, but they dramatically underestimate by how much.

What's the chance a 30-year-old can get pregnant in one try? Many thought up to 80 percent, while in reality it's less than 30 percent. For a 40-year-old, many assumed up to a 40 percent success rate. It's actually less than 10 percent. And when you keep trying? The survey finds many think you can get pregnant more quickly than it actually happens. It also shows many women underestimate how successful fertility treatments are. Nail has now had six unsuccessful rounds of in vitro fertilization.

Celeb Moms Give False Sense Of Comfort

"The first thing they say is, 'Why didn't anybody tell me this?'" says Barbara Collura, who co-authored the survey and heads Resolve, the National Infertility Association. She laments that no federal agency pushes this issue, and neither women nor their OB-GYNs tend to bring it up. Though, Collura admits that fading fertility is a hard message to deliver.

"Let's be honest, women don't want to hear that they can't have it all," she says. "We can have a great job, we can have a master's degree, we don't need to worry about child-bearing because that's something that will come. And when it doesn't happen, women are really angry."

After all, everywhere you look these days the message seems to be that women can have it all. Take the wave of 40-something celebrity moms, some of whom do not admit to having had fertility treatments. Then there was this summer's Real Housewives of New York where 53-year-old glamour mom Ramona Singer confided to a friend that she'd missed a period.

"Are you pregnant?" the friend gasped. "I might be," said Singer, speculating about how much her teenage daughter would love a younger sibling. Singer ended up taking a pregnancy test, and needless to say — or is it? — she was not pregnant, but more likely experiencing the onset of menopause.

So, you might conclude we need a public awareness campaign on age and fertility, right? Well, it's tricky.

"I just feel like it's something else they lump onto women that we have no control over," says filmmaker Monica Mingo, who's blogged about her decade-long effort to conceive. She says the real issue is society at large, which is pushing back the age people are expected to settle down and have kids. Mingo didn't even meet her husband until she was 32.

"You tell us your fertile years rapidly decline in your mid-20s," she says. "Well, if I'm not dating anyone, and I want to have a family, what's that information going to do for me?"

A decade ago, a campaign by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine sparked a vicious backlash. Ads on public buses in several big cities featured a baby bottle shaped like an hourglass, to warn women their time was running out. But women's rights groups called it a scare tactic that left women feeling pressured and guilty.

Another ad campaign? Sure, says Mingo.

"And it needs to come on when men are paying attention," she says. "Heck, put it on in the middle of a football game or something!"

The ticking biological clock, she says, is not a burden women should bear alone.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now let's talk about Americans who are just at that age where they're beginning to notice that they are getting little older. A new survey finds a problem. The age that women think they can conceive a baby is far different from what their bodies are actually capable of delivering. This poses an increasing problem as more women wait longer than ever to have children. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Kate Donnellon Nail never imagined she'd have trouble conceiving. For one thing, people always tell the San Francisco musician she looks much younger than her 43 years.

KATE DONNELLON NAIL: I work out regularly; I have a personal trainer; I do yoga - I've been doing yoga for 15 years.

LUDDEN: Nail's grandmother gave birth at 42, so she figured she was predisposed to fabulous fertility. Doctors say there's no such evidence. But Nail is healthy, and makes a point to eat well.

NAIL: Unfortunately, that doesn't always translate to those little eggs in your ovaries. They're not getting the message.

LUDDEN: When she was nearly 41, Nail and her husband went to a fertility doctor, who laid out the stark stats for someone her age.

NAIL: They put them out on a piece of paper on the desk right in front of me, and I was like, whoa. It just seemed so fashionable to have kids in your 40s these days.

LUDDEN: It is. And according to a recent poll, it also seems so easy. The survey, funded by the biopharmaceutical company EMD Serono, finds women dramatically underestimate how much fertility declines with age.

For a typical 40 year old, many assumed up to a 40 percent success rate in one try. It's actually less than 10 percent. The survey finds women also think you can get pregnant more quickly than actually happens. And while many do realize some older moms used fertility treatments, they overestimate their success rate.

BARBARA COLLURA: The first thing they say is, why didn't anybody tell me this?

LUDDEN: Barbara Collura co-authored the survey and heads Resolve, the National Infertility Association. She laments that no federal agency pushes this issue. And neither women nor their OB/GYNs tend to bring it up, though Collura admits fading fertility is a hard message to deliver.

COLLURA: Let's be honest, women don't want to hear that they can't have it all. We can have a great job, we can have a master's degree. We don't need to worry about child-bearing because that's something that'll come. And when it doesn't happen, women are really angry.

LUDDEN: After all, everywhere you look these days, the message seems to be women can have it all.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW "20/20")

MARIAH CAREY: (Singing) No one can take your place, there ain't nobody better, oh, Rocky, Rocky...

LUDDEN: Mariah Carey's among a wave of 40-something celebrity moms. She recently showed off her twins to ABC's Barbara Walters.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW "20/20")

CAREY: He's just very mellow...

BARBARA WALTERS: Look at that, look how he looks at you.

LUDDEN: Carey did admit to fertility treatments. But many do not. Then there was this summer's "Real Housewives of New York." Fifty-three-year-old glam mom Ramona Singer confided to a friend she'd missed a period.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "THE REAL HOUSEWIVES OF NEW YORK CITY")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Are you pregnant?

RAMONA SINGER: I might be.

LUDDEN: That's right, a woman who's 53 - around the age most enter menopause - assumed she was pregnant.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "THE REAL HOUSEWIVES OF NEW YORK CITY")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You know, Dr. Bramer just told me I have a very young uterus. You must have one, too!

LUDDEN: Needless to say - or is it? - Singer was not pregnant. So we need a public awareness campaign, right? Well, it's tricky.

MONICA MINGO: I just feel like it's just something else that they lump onto women that we have no control over.

LUDDEN: Monica Mingo has blogged about her decade-long effort to conceive. She says the real issue is society at large, which is pushing back the age people are expected to settle down and have kids. Mingo didn't even meet her husband till she was 32.

MINGO: You tell us, oh, your fertile years rapidly decline in your mid-20s. Well, if I'm not dating anyone and I want to have a family, what's that information going to do for me?

LUDDEN: A decade ago, a fertility ad campaign on public buses in several big cities sparked a vicious backlash. It featured a baby bottle shaped like an hourglass, to warn women their time was running out. But women's rights groups called it a scare tactic that left women feeling pressured and guilty. Another ad campaign? Sure, says Mingo.

MINGO: And it needs to come on at times when men are paying attention. Heck, put it on in the middle of a football game or something, I mean...

LUDDEN: The ticking biological clock, she says, is not a burden women should bear alone.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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