Beyond Childbearing Age?

Old Dads Yield New Mutations — Interesting Study.

Abraham in the Bible was 99 years old and Sarah was 90 when Isaac was conceived. Sarah apparently was well beyond menopause, so God would necessarily have had to perform a miracle for conception to occur.

I’m forever trying to understand the difference between human effort, science and faith in God. What I already know is that this effort will take my entire life.

Although I may beg to know the will of God, I often try to improve on God's timing by working out many things through my own efforts and those of experts as opposed to having the faith of Isaac.  When challenges, sickness and trouble arise, I think I believe in a little modern medicine,  powerful prayers, a trust in the technology that others know, and hanging with plenty of positive thinking.


Well, he certainly had little fear of fire. Maybe that made him a mutant? Originally, 90-year-old Sarah, wife of Abraham laughed at the apparent absurdity of delivering a son. Her reaction was the laughter of doubt, but after she actually gave birth to Isaac, her skeptical laughter changed to laughter of pure joy.

Many women may query; what is the larger miracle—Mary, a 16 year old that has a miraculous conception or Sarai, who has no eggs left and has passed menopause, having a baby? Now, if that occurrence happened to be me at Sarah’s age, I would have broken out in cold sweats perhaps moreso than when I was 16.

My plea more than likely would have been to be shot! I think Sarah’s story illustrates the human condition well; faith, promises, patience, and laughter when we take ourselves too seriously and think our reasoning beats that of God.  Not many older people enter into parenthood lightly – they enter parenthood with the same reason that someone would want a baby at any age.

Fertility researchers have traditionally focused on the impact of the mother's age on children's health, because children of older women are known to be at higher risk of Down's syndrome and other, rare disorders. Most of us that conceived in the late 30’s and 40’s postponing family-building, sweated until we were assured we were having a healthy, bonny baby.  Thanks to older moms, we’ve had evolutionary improvements in old-age female fertility.  Notwithstanding, waiting until the 40’s they say still results in high risk pregnancies and chancier birthrates.

So, I was interested to find a study done this past August, backing up older studies, where it showed that an increased rate of genetic mutations arise in children from an older father's sperm rather than the mother's eggs.

While some reports say that the majority of mutations are completely harmless and lead to natural variety between people, some are responsible for diseases including autism and schizophrenia.

According to Discover magazine this month, an article written by Jill Neimark, it was pointed out that, “Older fathers are a double-edged sword.  Most of the mutations they pass on are harmless and some may be beneficial, even essential to our long-term survival as a species, since a genetically varied population is the raw material of evolutionary change”.  I felt certain that the “double edged” sword was going to contrast the financial stability and wisdom an older father may offer contrasted to the mutations offered. But no, that was perhaps too sexist for our current PC market?

And inasmuch as there are not THAT many 70 year old newlywed fathers out there… the study states that a 70 year old man’s sperm will have 8 times as many mutations as a 20 year old man’s. Makes for cool X-Men movies, all this talk about mutation, but usually turns out either harmless or harmful in reality. Even so, when my husband is 70, he wants me to give birth to triplets: Iceman, Wolverine and The Beast.

The average woman contributes about 15 mutations to her child through her eggs, regardless of her age. But because sperm, unlike eggs, are constantly multiplying, they are more likely to develop imperfections as the father gets older, at a rate of about two per year. This means that while a 20-year-old man passes on about 25 mutations through his sperm, an average 40-year-old will pass on about 65. According to Kari Stefansson, founder of deCODE Genetics, and author of the study, “Older men’s genes appear to be a major driving force in human evolution.  But the mutations from a growing number of older fathers may also account for a portion of the recent increase in autism.” 

Stefansson continues, "All areas of the human genome were a mutation once upon a time, so all human variety is down to a mutation.  One interesting aspect of this work is it shows us that the classic focus on the age of the mother and the health of the child is not sufficient". The increasing age of the father has a much bigger impact on a child's health than was once believed.

Similar results were announced in April and September by bioinformatician EvanEichler at the University of Washington in Seattle, who demonstrated that the mutation rate in men rises linearly with age.  A father 50 or older is about twice as likely as one 29 or under to have an autistic child, Eichler says.

Also last year, Yale University geneticist Matthew State further quantified that risk.  In families that have only one autistic child, he found, about 15% of the cases are linked to new mutations in sperm cells.  Other studies suggest that offspring of older dads are at higher risk of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and epilepsy as well.  Because the average age of fatherhood is rising in many Western countries, more mutations are being passed along.

Others such as Dr. Allen Frances, of Duke University, caution that in our current generation, some maladies may not truly be due to mutation and are possibly an over-diagnosis – as in autism. Dr. Frances finds that with the easy access offered by mass media and internet, more people know about autism and therefore, more parents pursue it as a diagnosis. Secondly, there are more services offered at schools for such diagnosis and thus parents can get a 1:3 Special Education teaching ratio if their child is diagnosed with autism vs. a 1:30 in a regular classroom. Third, with many minimally trained mental health professionals diagnosing and many lay-interviewers providing us statistics, the numbers of autism are continually exaggerated. What this often causes then is a panic in people worrying about vaccinations and / or toxins in our water, food and drink; even when none of these hypotheses have been substantiated… yet.

Frances: “Anything is possible, but when rates rise this high and this fast, the best bet is always that there has been a change in diagnostic habits, not a real change in people or in the rate of illness.”  But even accounting for over-diagnoses; science can still study the known reported cases and compare percent of older parents vs. younger parents to see if there is a trend. Depending on which study you read, advanced paternal age adds anywhere from 5% to 25% to a child’s risk for autism.

Some may say that this information is important to understand and should remind us that nature designed us to have our children at a young age.  Some may believe if at all possible; men and women should not delay parenthood if they are in a position not to.  Others suggest that younger men ought to bank their sperm to protect their future children from diseases.  Even others say, “don’t worry, be happy.”


If there are from 50 billion to 280 billion bases in our 23 chromosomes, and roughly 20,000 unique genes – holding the key to the secrets of life – I’m not sure if all of the secrets are in this study.  But information, knowledge and experiences are tools for evolutionary progress.   

I don’t think it will deter older fathers from having children.  I'm a late bloomer and I didn’t have children until I felt it was right.  Then again, I did marry a toy-boy – a MN guy a few years younger than I.  

Like Sarah, in the old Bible story, thought processes which connect with patience are demanded of us.  The DNA says that passing on its genes is the ultimate goal of life. Our higher order thinking finds other goals more pressing. But that all important meeting of sperm connecting with woman’s egg is not always on our terms, it is not always on our time. And this may be a signature of our generation. Wanting it neat, tidy and without rough edges, some stay with mom and dad until they are 25, attend college until they are 30, don’t marry until they are 38 and have children at 45, only to find that life will still throw you a curve.

Instead of a deep exhale of contentment they had hoped for; society has instead: neurosis, anxiety, depression, narcissism and indecision? Some pity parents and grandparents. Out there working hard all day and not nearly as enlightened with Facebook, email, texting, multitasking, internet, cable, and, and, and… perhaps our inability to make a decisive commitment due to our plethora of opportunity? Consider this.

In After the Baby Boomers, author Robert Wuthnow researches what our parents had accomplished vs. this generation. “In 1960, 77% of women and 65% of men completed all the major transitions into adulthood by age 30 [to include: leaving home, finishing school, financially independent, married, having children]. By 2000, only 46% of women and 31% of men had accomplished the same by age 30.” And 12 years later, would we now say that these numbers are trending any differently? Maybe the human condition cannot be hotwired and there will always be suffering, lessons to learn, things we do that are insane, things that don’t go our way… and mutation.  




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