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What Does the Research Really Say About Older Mothers?

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.

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Photo credit: Thinkstock.

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10:02AM PDT on Aug 24, 2014

I must be grateful with what I have got. An excellent son married to a fabulous wife and having a grand daughter who is fantastic.

Sometimes we only want the absolute maximum out of life, and all well regulated but instead we should take life as it comes and be happy with each day we can enjoy

9:58AM PDT on Aug 24, 2014

I was 22 when my son was born. I never regretted it. Unfortunately my marriage was not that good, and after 14 years we divorced. Shortly afterwards I met my 2nd husband and we both had a great wish for another child - may be 2. After having tried for more than a year, we have commenced going to specialized clinics, even considered to have in vitro with donor sperm, as my husband's was of poor quality. After having discussed this matter for about 1,5 years, we finally took the decision to go for it. And what happened : by that time I was considered as being too old for this procedure. I was 36 years, and taking into account that in this case the chance of having twins of triplets, and that I had a greater possibility of having a non healthy baby and also due to shortage of donor sperm, we were sent home. And this did not happen in a small local hospital, but at the University Hospital in Brussels (I'm Belgian). And that was the end of our dream. Of course everybody is free to chose when and how many children they want, but if I had known earlier, we would not have hesitated that long before going to specialized doctors and trying in vitro fertilization. One not always obtains what he desires in life. And now I consider it was a sign of God, as I have lost my husband 6 years agoat the age of only 62 years, after a lengthy disease (Alzheimer) and I can not imagine that I could have taken good care of 1 or 2 teens with a sick husband. So, in fact I must be grate

1:19PM PDT on Aug 18, 2014

I was 43 when we had our son. I had MANY, MANY problems with my pregnancy. Not to mention that I didn't find out I was pregnant until I was 4 months along due to the fact that I was never regular and I was on 3 different Rx's for a back that needed major surgery on as well as a hip and a knee that needed replacing. I have horrible arthritis. In fact, I had 2 out of the 3 surgeries scheduled when I found out I was pregnant. We were told that I had a better chance of winning a multi-million $$ lottery and getting struck by lightning on the same day as opposed to getting pregnant. We had 7 drs. tell us it would never happen over a 4 year span. Then we ended up with Tanner. But it was a struggle. I was bed ridden for the last 2 months and he was still 1 month early. I ended up needing a CAT scan to get the shot in my spine as they tried 12 times and couldn't get it in due to my needing back surgery and Tanner was breech and had his foot caught in my rib cage not to mention that I coded on the table. My doctor said with all my problems, maybe we should just tie my tubes and I whole heartily agreed. I ended up weighing 27# less after having Tanner than before I got pregnant as well. But I wouldn't change a thing. He's healthy and active in soccer, football and basketball. He's extremely popular...especially with girls unfortunately. He's very smart, straight A's and A+'s for the last four years and takes advance classes. The teachers and everyone at school and the pa

8:10AM PDT on Aug 11, 2014

I'm a middle-aged woman and my husband is a young man -- and we just had a healthy, happy baby with no complications whatsoever... ladies if you're hitting 40 and want to have a baby and are single, I suggest you consider stepping away from age restrictions and think about finding a young partner or a young donor... that way you can help balance things out genetically. But the energy thing -- total bunk - I'm the one that gets up with her in the night and I'm fine during the day (I do fall asleep sometimes by 9.30pm, but heh - no biggee ;) I think people should just stop making hard-fast rules -- life is too short!

10:12AM PDT on Aug 10, 2014

NOTED SIGNED AND SHARED! T R.

10:00AM PDT on Aug 10, 2014

NOTED SIGNED AND SHARED. THERESA R.

7:37AM PDT on Aug 10, 2014

I think that having children at any age should be a personal but very informed decision.

7:37AM PDT on Aug 10, 2014

I think that having children at any age should be a personal but very informed decision.

2:57PM PDT on Aug 9, 2014

Interesting article and thoughtful comments. As others have stated, it really is an individual thing, there are pros and cons for each way and we must all muddle through as best as we can :)
My own way was to start my family young, now my husband and I are raising our grandson who was born within a year of my niece and nephew. It makes for some interesting conversation as they are 3 and 4 now.
Thanks for sharing :)

12:18PM PDT on Aug 9, 2014

I'm grateful to have had my last child at nearly 40. I was much more worn out by her antics and didn't have the energy I did in my 20s, but I was also a lot more mature and laid back then. There are pros and cons to having children no matter at what age.

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