Women face the brunt of societal pressure to have children before a certain age, but a new study concludes that the so-called biological clock is a concern for men, too. A man’s age can affect his fertility, the well-being of his partner during pregnancy, and the long-term health of his children, the research found. The authors suggest that more men may want to consider banking their sperm if they intend to wait until later in life to start a family.
The paper, published in the journal Maturitas, is a review of the medical literature on older fathers, defined as starting between the ages 35 and 45, depending on which researchers you ask. It highlights studies showing a variety of increased health risks incurred by the partners and children of these older dads.
In expectant mothers, conceiving a child with an older father was associated with a higher risk of gestational diabetes and preeclampsia (a complication marked by high blood pressure and swollen feet and legs). Paternal age also seems to increase the risk of premature and low-weight births. Children born to older fathers also appear to have a higher chance of being diagnosed with health conditions like autism, schizophrenia, and certain childhood cancers.
Many of these same risks are also true with older mothers, but the authors say that older men are rarely advised by doctors (or snarkily criticised by their family or society at large) about their ticking biological clock.
“While it is widely accepted that physiological changes that occur in women after 35 can affect conception, pregnancy and the health of the child, most men do not realise their advanced age can have a similar impact,” study author Gloria Bachmann, director of the Women’s Health Institute at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, said in a statement.
In men, these changes include lower testosterone levels, an accumulation of harmful genetic mutations in sperm cells, and an overall decline in sperm count and quality. As with women, these changes can not only affect the chances of a successful conception and pregnancy, but also the health of their children. And with fertility, at least, these risks are found even when older men try to have children with women under the age of 25.
Bachmann and her co-authors aren’t looking to shame or discourage men who want to have children when older. But they do correctly point out that “the disparity between the social interpretation of men’s and women’s fertility and role in reproduction speaks volumes regarding our assumptions about gender roles, reproduction and family planning.” That same disparity extends to science, with comparatively much less research on how a father’s attributes can affect the health of the children they help bring into the world.
That research is essential, since older men are having more children than ever — the authors cite research showing that 10 per cent of infants are now born to fathers over the age of 45, compared to 4 per cent four decades ago. Because of that, the authors advocate, doctors should counsel older men and their partners about the realities and risks of having children, much as women are counselled today. And as with some women who proactively freeze their eggs, they added, younger men not expecting to be fathers anytime soon but who might want the chance someday should plan for the future.
“As a society, perhaps men should be encouraged to bank sperm before their 35th or, at least, their 45th birthday to decrease the increased risks on maternal and fetal and child health which have been shown to occur as a result of ageing sperm,” the authors said.
Of course, sperm may not be the only thing that could explain this connection between older fathers and worse health outcomes for their children and pregnant partners. There could be other considerations, like the quality of relationships that older men have with their partners or children (a more stressful pregnancy, for instance, could negatively affect the mother and child). But regardless of what’s causing this link, it’s worth remembering that most children, even those born to older parents, will enter the world without any serious health complications.