A new study has found it’s time we talk about men’s biological clocks – and how ignoring them can hurt their partners and children
Women are constantly told to worry about their ticking biological clocks – and we are all too familiar with the dangers associated with “geriatric pregnancies” and advanced maternal age. At the same time, it’s been a given that men can have babies basically until they die of old age, as long as they can find a young enough partner.
Not any more.
A new study published this week in the science journal Maturitas has found that it’s crystal clear that men have a biological clock, too, and like women, things start to decline at about the same time, roughly age 35. The results of the study not only suggest that the families of men who wait to have kids face greater risks, but that men should receive reproductive counseling and consider freezing their sperm before they hit 40.
“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 realize their advanced age can have a similar impact,” said study researcher Gloria Bachmann, who is the director of the Women’s Health Institute at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.
The study reviewed over four decades of data that connects paternal age with a woman’s pregnancy, the baby’s birth, and the health of the child. Researchers found that the more advanced a man’s age at the time of conception, the more complications there were during the pregnancy and birth – and the more health conditions faced by the children as they aged.
Why does this happen? Well, it seems like men are a lot more like women than we thought when it comes to how our reproductive systems age: the quality of sperm goes down with age. Not only does conception become tougher, but the health of both the mother and the baby is put at greater risk as men turn 35, 40, 45, and older.
“In addition to advancing paternal age being associated with an increased risk of male infertility, there appears to be other adverse changes that may occur to the sperm with aging. For example, just as people lose muscle strength, flexibility and endurance with age, in men, sperm also tend to lose ‘fitness’ over the life cycle,” Bachmann said.
Specifically, the challenges faced by moms and babies when the father is older is pretty much a laundry list:
During pregnancy, women with older partners face higher instances of gestational diabetes, preeclampsia and preterm birth.
During labor and delivery, women and babies face “higher risk of premature birth, late still birth, low Apgar scores, low birth weight, higher incidence of newborn seizures and birth defects such as congenital heart disease and cleft palate.”
Even after they are born, kids with older dads record higher rates of childhood cancers, autism, and psychiatric and cognitive disorders like schizophrenia.
While we don’t know exactly why some of these health conditions are tied to advanced paternal age, we do have stronger and stronger evidence that older men who want to become fathers face more risks – just like we’ve known about older moms for decades.
“Although it is well documented that children of older fathers are more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia — one in 141 infants with fathers under 25 versus one in 47 with fathers over 50 — the reason is not well understood,” Bachmann said. “Also, some studies have shown that the risk of autism starts to increase when the father is 30, plateaus after 40 and then increases again at 50.”
This information is even more important than ever because, like women, men are waiting longer and longer to have kids, and the number of kids born to dads over 45 have jumped by 10 percent just in the last decade. In addition, erectile dysfunction drugs and fertility drugs make it possible for older men to have kids even later down the line. It’s more than likely contributing to the rise in autism diagnoses, and many fathers simply don’t know that advanced paternal age has any effect on their offspring.
What can we learn from this new information? Well, to put it simply, we need to start treating older men who want to have kids in similar ways that we treat older women. We all have biological clocks, and there’s plenty that we can do about it, starting with education.
“While women tend to be more aware and educated than men about their reproductive health, most men do not consult with physicians unless they have a medical or fertility issue,” Bachmann said.
Bachmann also suggests that men who think they might delay parenthood should look into the option of freezing sperm after the age of 35, and definitely by 45, exactly like older women have been freezing their eggs. Welcome to the club, men!