Common reproductive issues like infertility are misconstrued as conditions that only affect women. Not only does this prevent men from getting checked out, but it also hinders a doctor’s chance of identifying other complications down the road. A recent study conducted by researchers from the Stanford University School of Medicine has found that men struggling with infertility are also at an increased risk for complications unrelated to reproductive health, including diabetes and heart disease.

"For members of this group of reproductive-age men, they usually don't go to the doctor unless there is a big problem," said Dr. Michael Eisenberg, assistant professor of urology and director of male reproductive medicine and surgery at Stanford, in a statement. "A lot of time fertility is one of the first things that brings them to the doctor, so in some ways that might be an opportunity to engage the health care system and see what's going on with their general health."

Eisenberg and his colleagues gathered the medical records for more than 115,000 reproductive-aged men from an anonymous insurance claims database that were filed between 2001 and 2009. Each participant had their medical visits examined before and after fertility testing to help determine if any complications arose after their fertility was evaluated. The general health of men diagnosed with infertility was compared to men who were not diagnosed with infertility and men who underwent a vasectomy.

The research team was not surprised to learn that infertile men had higher rates of most diseases that were screened for in the study, including heart disease and diabetes. Furthermore, men with the most severe form of male infertility had an added risk for renal disease and alcohol abuse. These results stayed the same when researchers accounted for obesity, smoking, and health care utilization. Eisenberg hopes these findings will persuade men to get tested for infertility and seek follow-up care for potential complications.

"I think it's important to know that sperm counts and fertility may tell a little more than just about reproductive potential," Eisenberg explained. "There may be some other aspects that men could be alerted to about overall health."

Although the Stanford research team could not provide an exact mechanism for how infertility affects a man’s health outside of reproduction, they did settle on some theories that could explain. For example, infertile men have lower levels of circulating testosterone compared to fertile men, which is something that has also been linked to a higher risk for cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality. Another explanation was that harmful environmental influences may affect both reproductive and general health.

“Exposures that occur in utero can have lasting effects on the rest of your life," he said. "So maybe some of these same exposures that set men up later in life for things like heart disease could also set them up for things like lower sperm count."

A similar study conducted by the same Stanford research team back in 2014 found a connection between infertility and hypertension which could also explain why infertile men face a higher risk for diabetes and heart disease. Among 9,387 men (average age 38), 44 percent suffered from infertility that was caused by disease of the circulatory system, such as hypertension, vascular disease, and heart disease. Blockages that prevent sperm from joining with semen were deemed similar to the artery blockages that result in heart complications.

Source: Baker L, Cullen M, Li S, Eisenberg M, et al. Increased risk of incident chronic medical conditions in infertile men: Analysis of United States claims data. Fertility and Sterility. 2015.