09/06/2011 01:50 pm ET | Updated Nov 05, 2011

Are You As Fertile As You Look?

If it feels like your biological clock is ticking louder these days, Hollywood may be to blame. The move toward midlife mommyhood has not only become increasingly common, with more women choosing careers over motherhood altogether, it's also glamorized in a way that doctors say is misleading to women who do plan on getting pregnant one day.

"Fertility starts to decrease rapidly after 30, and by 40 it is quite difficult to conceive," says Hilda Hutcherson, M.D., Clinical Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Associate Dean for Diversity and Minority Affairs at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons. This isn't news to most of us, who are already counting down to 35. Yet a reminder doesn't hurt, and neither does a little pre-pregnancy planning. "I tell my patients that they should begin to start thinking seriously about pregnancy at age 30 if they are in a stable, supportive relationship and they both want the baby," Hutcherson says.

The unreality is reinforced by Hollywood, much to the growing dismay of many obstetricians and gynecologists. Not only are stars in their 40s now celebrated as bona fide sex symbols (Julia Roberts, Halle Berry, Salma Hayek, the list goes on), but judging from media coverage, they seem to be reproducing like rabbits.

Add Mariah Carey, Iman and Jennifer Beals to that list. The stars got pregnant at 41, 45 and 41 respectively. "While each woman's window of fertility is different (there have been rare cases of women conceiving naturally in their 50s), most doctors agree that by the time a woman is 40, her chances of getting pregnant each month are approximately 5 percent," the Times says.

And while Hollywood takes some of the blame, the Times cites a few other culprits as well:

Advances in beauty products and dermatology, not to mention manic devotion to yoga, Pilates and other exercise obsessions, are making it possible for large numbers of women to look admirably younger than their years. But doctors fear that they are creating a widening disconnect between what women see in the mirror and what’s happening to their reproductive organs.

For African-American women, Dr. Hutcherson says there are some other lifestyle factors to keep in mind, also.

"African-American women have a higher rate of sexually transmitted infections and some, like gonorrhea and chlamydia, damage fallopian tubes and may make a woman infertile," she says. According to the CDC, most women infected with chlamydia or gonorrhea have no symptoms. If symptoms do occur, they most often appear within one to three weeks of exposure and may include abnormal vaginal discharge, burning when passing urine, lower abdominal pain, lower back pain, nausea, fever, pain during sex or bleeding between periods. Annual screening is recommended for women with new or multiple sex partners.

Obesity can also interfere with ovulation and decrease fertility, Dr. Hutcherson says. Twenty-five percent of infertility cases may result from having a body mass index (BMI) over (or under) the recommended range, according to an article on the ideal weight to conceive published last year.

African-American women are three times more likely to get fibroids -- non-cancerous tumors that grow on the wall of the uterus or womb -- than other women, according to In African-American women, fibroids also seem to occur at a younger age, grow more quickly and are more likely to cause symptoms, including infertility. "Fibroids can cause infertility and increase as we age, especially after age 30," Dr. Hutcherson says. It's also important to note that overweight and obese women are at higher risk of fibroids.

See your doctor if you have symptoms including heavy bleeding or painful periods, feeling of fullness in the lower stomach area, enlargement of the lower abdomen, passing urine often, pain during sex or lower back pain.