What Does the Research Really Say About Older Mothers?
We often hear that the older a woman gets, the more risk there is if she decides to have a child. While that might be partially true, it leaves a lot of what we know unsaid.
We’ve all heard the media stories about studies that show a link between older mothers and an increased risk of conditions like autism. A study published in February of this year in the International Journal of Epidemiology, which surveyed 417,000 children born in Sweden between 1984 and 2003 found that the risk of a woman having a child with an autism spectrum disorder rapidly increased after she passed 30 years of age. For that matter, the same held true of the risk of a man fathering a child with autism: the older they were at the time of conception, the higher the risk of autism climbed.
Other research has suggested other problems with later-in-life pregnancies, mainly an increased risk of chromosomal abnormalities that means an increased risk of having children with conditions like Down’s Syndrome.
There’s also a significant societal pressure against having children when we’re older. The media tells us it’s selfish because children need young, vital parents to be able to keep up with the rigors of parenting and ensure the children are fulfilled and happy.
We’d expect, given that strength of feeling, for this matter to be settled — but it most certainly isn’t. Despite the scare stories which inflate admittedly factual concerns, there are a growing number of parents who are waiting into their 30s and early 40s or even beyond before they have children. What about those kids then? Are they on average unhealthy or in some way hampered by this?
The answer is: not necessarily.
Research conducted by analysts from Birkbeck University and publishing in the European Journal of Developmental Psychology, shows that when comparing children of women who were over 40 with mothers in their 20s using data from two UK cohort studies that had roughly the same methodologies for assessing children and parenting behaviors, older mothers (3o or over) were more likely to parent responsibly and, along with teenage mothers, were less likely to use harsh punishments like smacking their children.
The Birkbeck researchers have carried out other studies that have shown that older mothers appear to be able to provide safer environments for children with the children of older mothers 22 percent less likely to accidentally injure themselves and almost a third less likely to be admitted to hospital by age three due to non-underlying health problems. What’s more, that study also showed that older mothers may be better equipped to deal with parent/child conflict, with decreasing rates of conflict among older mothers and their offspring.
In addition to this, there’s the fact that recent preliminary research suggests that while chromosomal defects do rise with maternal age, congenital defects don’t show that same pattern. Now we should qualify that the research that produced this result was done using mothers in the second trimester, and one of the criticisms of the study is that many older mothers will have had difficulty conceiving and a significant proportion will miscarry before the second-trimester. However, even with those qualifiers, the research actually found that while heart defects were similar among children from young and older mothers, there were lower rates of brain, kidney and abdominal wall defects among kids from the older parent sample.
Well, this is all well and good we might say, but the concern over older mothers hasn’t just been about the children they raise but also their own health. The older a woman gets, the more likely she is to suffer complications during childbirth, including miscarriages that can cause wider health complications. The research tells us that this is indeed true, but it’s not a complete picture.
Actually, research from the Boston School of Medicine suggests that women having children beyond the age of 33 are more likely to reach 90 years of age or over when compared to mothers who stopped at age 3o. Now, it’s not that having the child when older makes the woman live longer. Instead, being able to conceive and successfully carry a pregnancy to term at an older age seems to be a marker for longevity.
What can we take from all this, then? Well, this shouldn’t be read as meaning that all women everywhere should put off having children until well into their 30s. Indeed, for some women who want children, that really could be too late for them.
No, this stresses that the decision is a personal one and that hammering women over the head with research that stresses the dangers of later-in-life pregnancy without showing that there’s a good body of research to say that older mothers can and do raise children successfully is unfair.
In short, the question of when to become a parent is a highly personal one, so we owe it to men and women everywhere to give them the best information possible, and not just the information that the media selects for its latest scare stories.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.