Fertility Tests Are a Waste of Money: Ovarian Reserve Debunked by NIH

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Frauke Petry, head of the Alternative fuer Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, or AfD) right-wing, populist political party, touches his pregnant belly during the AfD election campaign launch event for state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia on April 8, 2017 in Essen, Germany. The AfD rose to prominence following widespread unease in Germany following the country's liberal policy towards refugees and migrants in 2015-2016, during which approximately one million came to Germany to seek asylum. More recently, however, the AfD has seen its popularity fall, especially as German government policies towards migrants have become stricter and the Social Democrats have risen in polls with the announcement of their new chancellor candidate, Martin Schulz. North Rhine-Westphalia will hold elections on May 14 and Germany is to hold federal elections in September. Lukas Schulze/Getty Images

Many women rely on fertility tests to help them have a baby. But the popular diagnostics might not be as useful as they’re hyped up to be. In fact, some of the tests may even be ineffective, according to new research.

One of the common types of tests measures a woman’s “ovarian reserve,” which refers to the supply of available eggs in her ovaries. With more women waiting to get pregnant until their 30s and 40s, tests like this are tantalizing.

But a low egg count doesn’t necessarily make a woman less likely to get pregnant, a new study found. Researchers from several universities studied whether an ovarian reserve test—which can be taken at home—accurately correlated with whether a woman was able to conceive. Their study, published in the Journal of American Medical Association, looked at 750 women, average age 33, who had been trying to conceive for three months or fewer. The researchers checked the women's fertility using three distinct hormone levels collected through blood and urine samples: inhibin B, follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), and anti-mullerian hormone (AMH). They correlated these levels with the amount of time it took each woman to become pregnant. 

Women who had lower levels of those hormones weren’t any less likely to become pregnant compared to women with normal levels, the study found. Though a seemingly harmless finding, these tests results could greatly impact a hopeful mom-to-be’s mental health.

“Women are born with a set number of eggs that gradually declines through the reproductive years,” Esther Eisenberg, Program Director of the National Institute of Health’s Reproductive Medicine and Infertility Program, said in a statement. “This study suggests that testing for biomarkers of ovarian reserve does not predict the chances for conception in older women still of reproductive age.”

“Women with low values are going to have unnecessary anxiety, and women with high values may be incorrectly reassured,” Anne Steiner, a reproductive endocrinologist and one of the study’s authors, told STAT.

Nanette Santoro, who researchers reproductive endocrinology at the University of California, Denver, and who was not involved in the research and wrote an accompanying editorial mentioning a few caveats to what she called a credible study. The study specifically excluded women with known fertility problems that affected their partners. Also, the outcome of the pregnancy was not considered, only whether or not the women conceived. And women who were taking fertility drugs could have skewed the data. 

Still instead of relying on ovarian reserve tests to predict the chances of having a baby, it may be best to consider other factors, Dr. Steiner suggests.