27 December 2012

Uganda: Does The Biological Clock Tick for Men, Too?

Scientific research might point at the need for men to have children at an earlier age, but culture and upbringing does equip them with minds of their own

Are you a man above 40, constantly fatigued and experiencing a low sex drive? You could be going through male menopause, according to recent but somewhat controversial scientific findings.

While many men can play stud, siring children way into their eighties, the idea that men too experience changes in their hormonal levels akin to women's menopause is a painful pin in their bubble of sexual invincibility.

When a woman does not have children by 30, society starts the countdown. Nudging, criticising, pressuring and ridiculing... whatever it takes to get her to have children before the dreaded age of 35, where many presume a woman will have insurmountable challenges trying to have a baby.

An accomplished woman who does not have a partner or children is nowadays labelled "beautiful but unlucky." But a man in the same situation is an "eligible bachelor."

The average age for marriage for women in Uganda is 17.9 while that for men is 22.3. This is generally very low. However, today more men and women, particularly those in the elite class, are postponing marriage for other endeavours. But it is not a levelled playing field as, according to psychologists, men are expected to pursue things beyond marriage but a woman who does is viewed as somewhat wayward.

"It is a matter of social construction," says Counsellor Harriet Nabuduwa. "Even if as a woman you tried to ignore it, you risk feeling incomplete because you are not married."

Scientific evidence

The pressure for women to settle and have children before they are 35 has for long been backed by evidence that younger women are bound to have healthier pregnancies and offsprings. But now, it turns out, these greying bachelors experience a decline in their hormonal levels akin to that of women, and maybe it is time for them to rethink their decision to wait longer before having children.

Men's testosterone levels begin to decrease at about 50, says Dr Collins Kasirye. When this happens, a man may begin to experience signs like low libido, fatigue, joint pains, headaches, draught (swollen limbs) and lower back pain. But it is nothing comparable to what perimenopausal women go through, Kasirye says.

"Some men experience it and some do not. Even the age at which it happens varies from man to man," Kasirye says, adding that "many times men are too proud to admit these symptoms, let alone recognise it as a male menopause. Instead, they simply view it as another change that comes with old age."

Older men are also prone to diseases like diabetes and obesity that can reduce their testosterone levels. But the fact is, unlike women, men still maintain the ability to have children almost all their lives.

Diminished ability

But their chances of fathering children somewhat declines, according to an article published by the journal Fertility and Sterility. Statistics show that men above 45 are five times less likely to cause a woman to conceive than their younger counterparts, particularly those that are 25 and younger.

Congenital disorders

As women grow older, their oestrogen levels and egg production reduces. Also they produce more abnormal eggs and risk having children with genetic disorders. The same is true for men. As men get older, they see a decline in the male hormone testosterone, a decline in fertility, and a greater chance of fathering children with genetic problems.

The Fertility and Sterility article research found that between the ages of 30 and 50, the average man's sperm declines by up to 30 per cent in volume, swims up to 37 per cent slower. Babies fathered by these men are thus more at risk of dwarfism, schizophrenia and Down syndrome.

Dads getting older

Yet men remain unbothered about the age at which they marry or have children. Some have blamed the increasing number of grey haired men at nursery school speech days on cross generational sex, others on life's financial pressures that require that a man first establish himself before he starts a family. But Nabuduwa says men feel like they can get a woman at any time.

"Society thinks men do not age. They also never totally lose their sexual prowess. So, they can marry and have children at any time," she explains.

Nabuduwa says that in her job, she has met some men who are under pressure to get married. "The pressure is usually from a few family members and is not as overt as that experienced by women," she says.

Asked whether he ever felt pressure to get married, Nelson Owere, who married at 42, says: "There were whispers. But I had not met a woman fit for me. I was not about to marry just anyone."

Asked whether he is not worried about the health of children he might have at an advanced age, he says: "That research is questionable. My father had children until he was 70 and we are all fine."

Thus far, while scientific research might point at the need for men to have children at an earlier age, culture and upbringing does equip men with minds of their own.

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