Throughout the Western World, more parents are delaying marriage and childbearing. As the age of parents is increasing, much of the medical research and concern has been concentrated on the age of the mother, but today we focus on the age of the father. Two recent reports, one from Iceland, the other from the U.S., give both good and bad news for older fathers.
First, the “bad”. From the company deCODE Genetics in Iceland and published August 22 in the journal Nature, is a study linking older fathers with an increased risk of having children with autism and even schizophrenia. The researchers discovered the reason was an increased number of mutations in the DNA in the older father’s sperm cells.
Because of that, a father over the age of 40 has an almost six-times higher risk of having an autistic child than a father under 30 years old. The risk of schizophrenia and possibly other mental disorders has not yet been clearly defined, but also seems to be higher. The age of the mother made no difference. An older mother had no increased risk for having a child with these problems.
Still, the risk is small for an older father, and most father totally normal children. The overall risk for a father older than 40 of having a child with these problems probably is no more than 2%.
The “good news”, coming from Northwestern and Harvard Universities (USA) and published in the June 11 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, gives the surprising finding that children born of older fathers appear to have longer lives. This effect is even greater if the father’s own father was older.
This is because the “telomeres”—the “caps” at the end of the chromosomes in all of our cells— are longer in the sperm cells of older men. Longer telomeres are a good thing, as they protect our cells from damage. Normally as we age, the telomeres get shorter, which causes cells to stop dividing, and because of that, organs—including the brain—slowly atrophy with age.
But sperm chromosomes are different, and the longer telomeres in those chromosomes of older fathers are passed on to their children, who are thus born with longer telomeres. Again, longer telomeres are a good thing, and individuals with longer telomeres live longer lives.
Scientists need to do further long-term research to determine how much life-extending advantage this gives to children with older fathers. It is interesting and somewhat reassuring that older fatherhood has both disadvantages (increased risk of autistic child) and advantages (longer life).
There are many factors to consider when parents are considering children, including financial and emotional maturity of the parents, and now we have several more factors to consider. If considering becoming parents when you are “older”, it is good to discuss this with a knowledgeable doctor, such as a pediatrician, or in larger medical centers, a genetic counselor.
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