Methodologic and Statistical Approaches to Studying Human Fertility and Environmental Exposure

By Tingen, Candace; Stanford, Joseph B. et al. | Environmental Health Perspectives, January 2004 | Go to article overview

Methodologic and Statistical Approaches to Studying Human Fertility and Environmental Exposure


Tingen, Candace, Stanford, Joseph B., Dunson, David B., Environmental Health Perspectives


Although there has been growing concern about the effects of environmental exposures on human fertility, standard epidemiologic study designs may not collect sufficient data to identify subtle effects while properly adjusting for confounding. In particular, results from conventional time to pregnancy studies can be driven by the many sources of bias inherent in these studies. By prospectively collecting detailed records of menstrual bleeding, occurrences of intercourse, and a marker of ovulation day in each menstrual cycle, precise information on exposure effects can be obtained, adjusting for many of the primary sources of bias. This article provides an overview of the different types of study designs, focusing on the data required, the practical advantages and disadvantages of each design, and the statistical methods required to take full advantage of the available data. We conclude that detailed prospective studies allowing inferences on day-specific probabilities of conception should be considered as the gold standard for studying the effects of environmental exposures on fertility. Key words: conception, fecundability, menstrual cycle, ovulation, reproductive epidemiology, statistical methods, study design, time to pregnancy.

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There is increasing concern about the effects of environmental exposures on human fertility (Baird and Strassmann 2000). At least 10% of couples in the United States have had difficulty achieving pregnancy (Chandra and Stephen 1998). Investigators are worried that fertility may be declining, and there is corresponding concern in the general public (Carlsen et al. 1992; Pearce et al. 1999; Swan et al. 2000; United Nations 1997). The increased public focus on fertility problems has resulted partly from the increasing numbers of women who delay attempting pregnancy until their midddle to late 30s, ages at which a substantial proportion of couples will flail to conceive within a year and hence be categorized as clinically infertile (Dunson et al. In press). Many of these couples will resort to assisted reproduction techniques, which pose potential concerns about safety and impact on perinatal and child health (Mitchell 2002). Despite broad interest in the scientific community and in the general public, surprisingly little is known about key factors related to human fertility and fecundity, such as age, environmental exposures, sexual behavior, and lifestyle (Joffe 2003; Olsen and Rachootin 2003). In this article we first review broadly the factors known to affect fertility. We then discuss methodologic and statistical issues involved in studying fecundity, with an emphasis on the advantages, necessary design elements, and statistical methods for detailed prospective preconception cohort studies. We also comment on the need to integrate the study of human fecundity with the study of other aspects of human reproduction and development.

Throughout the article, we use the term "fecundity" to refer to a couple's probability of pregnancy with regular intercourse without the use of contraception. In other words fecundity is the inherent capacity to conceive. Depending on the context, fecundity can be assessed for women, for men, or for couples. The related term from demography, "fecundability," is the specific probability of conception within a single menstrual cycle with noncontracepted intercourse. We use the term "fertility" to refer to the ability of a couple to achieve a pregnancy that survives to birth.

Factors Affecting Fertility

Age and environmental exposures. It is generally accepted that female fecundity declines with age (Sauer 1998). However, limited data are available on the rate of decline (Schwartz and Mayaux 1982; Stovall et al. 1991; van Noord-Zaadstra et al. 1991) and on factors contributing to the decline (Abdalla et al. 1997; Rosenwaks et al. 1995). Even less is known about aging effects on male fecundity, with the available data pertaining mostly to declines in the elderly years (Kidd et al. …

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