Age should never be a barrier to hope and fulfillment when it comes to IVF. Many women in their early to mid-40s are successfully having IVF babies using their own eggs, especially if they have a good number of eggs left in their ovaries. However, for women with diminished ovarian reserve (DOR) or those over the age of 44, where the chances of success with their own eggs are low, IVF with egg donation can be a highly successful and safe option. Let’s explore why age affects IVF outcomes and discover the possibilities that lie ahead.
The egg plays a crucial role in determining the quality of the embryo, with a “competent” egg having the best chance of developing into a healthy baby. As women age, the chances of having eggs with an irregular number of chromosomes (aneuploid) increase significantly. Fertilizing an aneuploid egg will result in an embryo with an abnormal number of chromosomes, making it unable to develop into a healthy baby.
Chromosomal abnormalities are the main cause of failed implantation, pregnancy losses, and birth defects. As women get older, the risk of chromosomal abnormalities in embryos rises, leading to lower IVF success rates. Additionally, older women may experience hormonal imbalances that further affect egg quality and development. However, personalized stimulation protocols can help protect egg quality and improve IVF outcomes by regulating hormone production and activity.
When it comes to IVF in older women, selecting the right ovarian stimulation protocol is crucial. Various protocols are available, each tailored to meet individual needs. However, certain protocols should be avoided for older women or those with DOR to optimize chances of success.
I selectively use a variety of ovarian stimulation protocols for ovarian stimulation/IVF in older women and those with DOR:
- The conventional long pituitary down-regulation protocol: This involves administering a GnRH agonist like Lupron or Buserelin for a few days prior to initiating ovarian stimulation with gonadotropins. Then, a combination of FSH-dominant gonadotropin and a small dose of Menopur is administered, and ultrasound and blood tests are done to monitor follicle development. The eggs are triggered for maturation with hCG, and the egg retrieval is scheduled for approximately 36 hours later. This protocol is often preferred for older women who have adequate ovarian reserve (AMH=>1.5ng/ml).
- The agonist/antagonist conversion protocol (A/ACP): This is similar to the conventional long down-regulation protocol. However, instead of using an agonist, a GnRH antagonist is administered from the onset of stimulation with gonadotropins. This protocol is often preferred for older women who have moderately severe DOR (AMH=0.5-1.5ng/ml).
- A/ACP with Estrogen “priming”: For women with very severe, DORI prescribe estrogen “priming “with skin estradiol (E2) patches or Estradiol injections administered bi-weekly. For some time before commencing gonadotropin stimulation, in an attempt to enhance ovarian response to stimulation. This protocol is sometimes used in older women who have severe DOR (<0.5-1.5ng/ml).
In my opinion, the following ovarian stimulation protocols all promote over-exposure to LH-induced ovarian testosterone and are best avoided in older women and women with DOR, undergoing ovarian stimulation for IVF:
- Agonist “flare” protocols, which cause a surge of pituitary-LH at the wrong time.
- High dosages, LH-containing fertility drugs (e.g., menotropins such as Menopur).
- Testosterone-based supplements like Androgel.
- DHEA supplementation: DHEA is converted to testosterone in the ovaries.
- Clomiphene citrate & Letrozole promote exaggerated pituitary LH release that can result in over-production of ovarian testosterone.
- Triggering egg maturation with too low a dosage of hCG (the ideal dosage is 10,000U of urine derived hCG) and Recombinant DNA-derived hCG (the ideal dosage is 500mcg of Ovidrel).
In cases where using their own eggs is no longer viable due to age and severe DOR, using donor eggs provides a fulfilling path to parenthood. Although some may initially hesitate due to the lack of genetic relation, it’s important to understand that the person who gives birth is considered the true biological parent in most cultures and legal systems. Becoming a parent through this connection can bring immense joy and fulfillment, as countless successful cases have shown.
Age may reduce the chances, but it does not eliminate the possibility of having a child through IVF. When IVF with own eggs is not an option, embracing the alternative of egg donation opens doors to highly successful and fulfilling paths to parenthood. It’s time to unlock the possibilities and embark on the journey towards creating a loving family.