Dads Have a Biological Clock Too
Yes, as we all have been endlessly reminded, it has been shown that “older” mothers (at least 35 years old) tend to undergo high-risk pregnancies. This includes a higher likelihood of miscarriage and intrauterine complications along with higher percentages of babies born with Down syndrome. But just because an older dad doesn’t have a uterus doesn’t mean he’s off the hook. We’re talking to you, George Clooney.
Clooney and his wife have just announced that they’re having twins. Don’t take this the wrong way — we love celebrity babies too. But the guy is 55 years old — why isn’t anyone concerned about the health implications that come with his age?
A study published in JAMA Psychiatry has shown that children with fathers older than 45 are more likely to develop severe mental or developmental issues such as autism, schizophrenia and attention deficit disorders along with forms of dwarfism. While the evidence isn’t completely conclusive, these are still major risks we should be paying attention to and kind of aren’t.
As it turns out, these illnesses can come from mutations in a father’s DNA. How does this happen? Here’s a quick biology crash course:
Women are born with a specific number of eggs, and since we don’t regenerate them, this number never grows, and the eggs can’t change genetically. Men, on the other hand, produce millions of sperm in a single day. Producing new sperm means copying and recopying DNA. This is a human process that occurs practically nonstop, so it’s not perfectly done every time. Mistakes happen, and this leads to some genetic mutations, or copying errors, in an individual sperm’s DNA.
And "mutation" sounds like a scary word, but one genetic mutation doesn’t mean the sperm will have three tails or make a green baby — most mutations are minor and quite harmless to us. The problem exists when the mutation occurs in a specific way that leads to a serious illness.
Where does age come into the picture? An older man has been producing sperm longer than a younger man, and so logically his body has had more time to accumulate mutations. The study suggests that in comparison with children born to fathers aged 20 to 24, children born to older fathers are twice as likely to develop schizophrenia, three times as likely to be born with autism, and 13 times as likely to show signs of an attention deficient disorder.
Before you panic, know that this doesn’t mean that all kids born to older dads are immediately screwed — percentages of these issues are still pretty low. However, some men are taking this information seriously and are proactively deciding to bank their younger, less mutated sperm.
Preparing to have kids years in the future makes perfect sense in some situations; maybe you’re waiting to become more financially stable or perhaps just more mature. Methods such as in vitro fertilization have opened the doors to new types of families with different types of plans. But how far should this go?
Do the math here, ladies. By the time George Clooney’s children are 10, he will be 65 years old. And he’s not the only celebrity with this delayed goal of fatherhood — it seems to be a completely normalized trend. Mick Jagger had his seventh child at age 73. Steve Martin decided to have a daughter at age 67. So much for father of the bride, am I right?
OK, that was a cheap shot; but all jokes aside, it’s a valid point to consider. How would the life of a completely healthy child be impacted by having older parents? Will aging parents have the energy to keep up with a child’s bustling schedule? Will the child have to live without knowing their grandparents and other deceased relatives and watch their own parents’ health decline?
Maybe these celebrity parents don’t have to deal with the stress of retirement or finding the best medical care, but for the rest of us, the age of a man's sperm — not just our eggs — needs to fall into the pregnancy conversation immediately. Men have a biological clock too. And maybe they should be the ones getting the you’re-too-old-to-have-kids talk for once.