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In vitro fertilization offers older women a better chance at pregnancy

Posted July 21, 2015
Updated July 22, 2015

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— From 1970 to 2012, the average age for a woman having her first child went from 21 to 25 years old, and the birth rate for women over 35 increased dramatically.

A myriad of reasons have led many women to have children later in life, with education and career goals topping many lists.

But now that child rearing is coming later in life, many have asked: How old is too old to have a baby? And what are the options if they can't get pregnant?

Chris and Kristy Cornell, married in 2001, were one such couple who recently completed a 14-year journey to overcome undiagnosed infertility.

The pair had planned on having a large family, but Kristy's first pregnancy didn't come until she was 36.

"And then, unfortunately, that was a miscarriage," she said.

Cornell then turned to weight-loss surgery to improve her odds of conception. She was pregnant again at age 38 and gave birth to Olivia.

"She was gorgeous, but unfortunately she was really sick," Cornell said.

Olivia died after 27 days.

"It was difficult, but we did everything we could do," Chris Cornell said.

Fertility specialists have long regarded the age of 35 as the point at which the chance of natural conception begins to drop and the miscarriage rate increases.

"Around age 38, we start to see more drastic declines in natural fertility," UNC fertility specialist Anne Steiner said. "We do start to see sharp drop-offs at age 40."

After Olivia's death, the couple moved from California to Wake Forest so they could seek medical help at UNC Hospitals. Nearing 40, the Cornells decided that in vitro fertilization was their best hope.

Kristy's eggs and Chris's sperm were fertilized in a lab, and the embryo was then implanted into Kristy's uterus. Doctors told the couple that, if Kristy couldn't get pregnant, they may need to consider donor eggs or adoption.

A donor egg from a woman younger than 32 is usually the most successful option, but it's expensive, usually costing between $15,000 and $20,000. Using her own eggs would have been cheaper, but still could have run about $12,000 out of pocket, because health insurance does not cover it.

"It's a significant cost which could be a big burden to most couples out there," Steiner said.

In the end, in vitro fertilization worked.

"We found out we were pregnant, and it was a beautiful moment," Kristy Cornell said.

The Cornells welcomed son Kaden after Kristy had celebrated her 40th birthday.

"We actually brought Kaden home on Olivia's birthday," she said. "We just love him so much."

"It's exciting. It's a little stressful, it's scary. But 100 percent joy," Chris Cornell said.

Steiner says women under age 35 should attempt pregnancy for one year before undergoing a fertility assessment. Women between 35 and 38 should try to get pregnant for six months.

Steiner says guidelines from the National Society of Reproductive Medicine hold the limit for in vitro donor eggs at 55 years old, but only if that woman is very healthy with no medical concerns.

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