Thanks to high tech advances, 28 is the new 38 when it comes to reproductive anxiety.
12.03.2017 • 6:30 PM
Valerie Landis was 33 when she froze her first set of eggs. “I had not been lucky in love,” she said. A long-term relationship begun in her early twenties had ended in her late twenties, and “approaching [her] thirties,” she thought, “I will be the candidate that will need egg freezing.”
Having worked in women’s health and fertility since her early twenties, Landis, who currently lives in Chicago, was more inclined than your average 20-something to come to this conclusion. But preparing for a future family without a partner and/or before the age of 30 is increasingly common. As women spend more time focusing on their careers and education than they do dating and family building, they’re starting to think about ways to ensure the latter can still take place down the road.
“When we started freezing eggs more than a decade ago, the average woman was in her late thirties,” said Dr. Alan Copperman, director of the Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility division at Reproductive Medicine Associates of New York, who sees higher numbers of younger patients every year. ”I think in part thanks to improvements in technology and clearly in response to social media and traditional media and celebrity endorsements, the average age continues to get lower.” In 2017, at RMA New York, the average age of female clients freezing their eggs was 35, which Dr. Copperman called “extraordinary.”
That average comes from the over 400 women who have undergone oocyte cryopreseveration at RMA New York, whose ages range from around 21 (usually women who have breast cancer or other medical diagnoses that could limit their future chances of conceiving) to forty-something. According to Dr. Copperman, 27 is the earliest age at which single women choose to freeze their eggs for elective reasons.
A number of factors contribute to younger women deciding to freeze their eggs. Better technology and lower cost are foremost among them, but what’s driving this prepper mentality is the idea that you can plan for your family in advance just as you can start early when planning for a career or retirement. In a world where parents prepare their pre-schoolers to get into Ivy League colleges, it’s not such a stretch to begin planning a family well before you’re in a position to start one.
Every woman is born with the total number of eggs she’s going to have in her lifetime, after all, and in the past few years, this fact has been resonating with younger and younger women who feel the need to control and organize more aspects of their lives — because they can.
“I know the word ‘empowered’ gets thrown around a lot,” said Copperman, “but it is in many cases empowering for a woman to control not only when she doesn’t get pregnant [via birth control] but when she does get pregnant.”
The prepper mentality isn’t just coming from young women. “What I’m finding is that parents are a huge driver of this, giving away egg freezing to their graduating daughters from college,” said Landis, especially when their daughters are entering demanding graduate programs like medical or law school. “It’s a way for parents to have a guarantee, or a chance, for them to be grandparents someday.”
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Egg freezing has been around for decades, but it’s seen a gain in popularity since the development of vitrification. A flash freezing method that’s far more successful than the slow freezing technique previously used to preserve eggs, vitrification “really changed everything,” said Kristen Mancinelli, director of education at Extend Fertility. With vitrification, most frozen eggs survive once they’ve thawed — Mancinelli put the rate at about 92 percent.
Extend Fertility, a clinic in Midtown Manhattan, started as a referral service for women looking to freeze their eggs in 2004, before re-launching in 2016 to specifically accommodate women who were “thinking ahead” by exploring elective egg freezing. Having noticed a lack of services catering to “the young, healthy woman sitting awkwardly in the corner with all the couples trying to conceive” at most in-vitro fertilization clinics, said Mancinelli, the Extend team wanted to meet that growing demographic’s demand.
“The ideal age for egg freezing is between the ages of 20 to 35 years,” said Dr. Aimee Eyvazzadeh, a reproductive endocrinologist based in the Bay Area who throws egg freezing “parties” where women can learn more about the process. “I’ve been doing egg freezing parties for the past three years,” said Eyvazzadeh. “And in the beginning, many women were over 35 attending my parties. I just threw a party [with 52 attendees] and most were in their twenties or thirties.”
Egg freezing parties, similar to the Tupperware parties of yore, started gaining popularity around 2014, when Dr. Eyvazzadeh, who also goes by the moniker “egg whisperer,” started hosting hers. “For me, the whole big gimmick of the egg freezing party is not about freezing eggs; it’s only about education,” she explained. Most women don’t receive a lot of reproductive education until they’re actively trying to give birth — “here’s a condom, here’s how you put it on, good luck,” is how Landis described the extent of her school-age reproductive education — so more specialists are attempting to change this by speaking to younger women about their family planning options.
Then there are companies like Facebook, Google, and Apple, which have encouraged women to prep early for later pregnancies by covering the cost of egg freezing procedures. The tech world has been infatuated with later life prepping for some time. From strict regimens aimed at optimizing long-term health to striving for immortality, it’s not surprising the industry is facilitating this option for its employees.
Dr. Copperman encounters some of these women at his practice. “We’re seeing women who are 27 years old having these great benefits and saying, ‘Why wouldn’t I take advantage of this great opportunity? Who knows what will happen in the future?’”
And finally, there’s the increased fear of having children with developmental and cognitive disorders, which the Center for Disease Control says are on the rise. “I don’t think anyone wants to take any risks these days,” said Allison Charles, a speech-language pathologist operating in Philadelphia, of women preserving their eggs at younger ages. While she believes that what appears to be an increase in autism spectrum disorders is actually a broadening of the diagnostic criteria, to the public, it still looks “horrifying.”
“They don’t want any extra risk, such as age, to contribute to this possibility.”
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Today, Valerie Landis counts herself as a “two-time egg freezer.” She underwent her second procedure when she was 35, at which time she was able to extract 13 eggs, 12 of which successfully froze. When she was 33, she was able to freeze 17 eggs.
“Earlier is better,” she said, explaining that her number of eggs declined even though she’d practiced a very healthy lifestyle those interim years, avoiding harmful activities like smoking in favor of a smoothie drinking. She currently uses her website, Eggsperience.com, and her podcast, Eggology Club, to “help inspire, teach, educate women about oocyte cryopreseveration.”
“I think of it as preventative medicine,” she said.