The Western man's sperm count just isn't what it used to be. In what the Washington Post calls the largest and most comprehensive look into the matter, an international team of researchers reports in the journal Human Reproductive Update that after analyzing 185 previous studies involving 42,000 men worldwide between 1973 and 2011, they've observed a 52% drop in sperm concentration in men from North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. This is in stark contrast to men in South America, Asia, and Africa, where no such decline was found, though not nearly as much data comes out of those regions, researchers report in press release. "Given the importance of sperm counts for male fertility and human health, this study is an urgent wake-up call," the lead author says.
In 1973, the researchers estimate, men had an average sperm concentration of 99 million per milliliter. The World Health Organization puts the threshold for impaired chances of conception at 40 million, and today, the average Western male's sperm concentration has dropped very close to that: 47 million. And while there isn't exactly a fertility crisis among humans, Gizmodo calls the research "admittedly scary." Having a low sperm count has been linked to a range of increased health problems and even higher mortality. It's "a signal that there's something wrong in men's health overall," one researcher tells the Post, noting that "the decline is strong and ... the decline is continuing." What's causing the drop is up for debate, and everything from chemical and pesticide exposure to smoking and stress have been blamed. (Tight underwear could be part of the problem.)