When a large study linked schizophrenia to paternal age, some researchers wondered if the root cause, rather than age, was that men who had waited had the makings of the disease themselves. Image: Getty Images
- It is widely recognized that a 40-year-old woman has an increased risk of bearing a child with Down syndrome. What is not known is that a 40-year-old man has the same risk of fathering a child with schizophrenia—and even higher odds of his offspring having autism. The risk of bipolar disorder appears to rise as well.
- In the past couple of decades, the number of older fathers has increased. Birth rates for men older than 40 have jumped as much as 40 percent since 1980.
- The mechanisms behind the higher risks are still being investigated, although scientists have several hypotheses that could someday lead to better therapies or possibly even cures for these mental illnesses.
When my wife, Elizabeth, was pregnant, she had a routine ultrasound exam, and I was astonished by the images. The baby’s ears, his tiny lips, the lenses of his eyes and even the feathery, fluttering valves in his heart were as crisp and clear as the muscles and tendons in a Leonardo da Vinci drawing. Months before he was born, we were already squabbling about whom he looked like. Mostly, though, we were relieved; everything seemed to be fine.
Elizabeth was 40, and we knew about all the things that can go wrong in the children of older mothers. We worried about Down syndrome, which is more common in the offspring of older women. Elizabeth had the tests to rule out Down syndrome and a few other genetic abnormalities. That was no guarantee the baby would be okay, but the results were reassuring to us.
This article was originally published with the title The Father Factor.