The Trend of Older People Becoming First Time Parents
The person who wrote this page doesn’t seem too keen on the idea that people are becoming parents later in life:
(Link): How Older Parenthood Will Upend American Society The scary consequences of the grayest generation. by Judith Shulevitz
Two reasons I am linking to that page (which is very, very long), is…
1. It points out that older males produce deformed kids. Often, there is sexism involved, where people assume only older motherhood is dangerous, but older males produce defective sperm.
In that way, Shulevitz’s article is similar to this one:
(Link): The Ticking Male Biological Clock – WSJ.com
2. The mere fact the page is discussing the situation at all shows it’s becoming more and more common in American society.
Typical of Christians and conservatives (and I am a conservative myself, but one who disagrees with other conservatives in how they handle or behave about some cultural issues), but in this otherwise left-leaning publication, the author (who I would assume is liberal) chooses to bitch and gripe about the situation, rather than just acknowledge that things change in culture. She sounds like a typical conservative.
Here are excerpts from the very long article:
- by Shulevitz
Over the past half century, parenthood has undergone a change so simple yet so profound we are only beginning to grasp the enormity of its implications. It is that we have our children much later than we used to.
This has come to seem perfectly unremarkable; indeed, we take note of it only when celebrities push it to extremes— when Tony Randall has his first child at 77; Larry King, his fifth child by his seventh wife at 66; Elizabeth Edwards, her last child at 50.
This new gerontological voyeurism— I think of it as doddering-parent porn— was at its maximally gratifying in 2008, when, in almost simultaneous and near-Biblical acts of belated fertility, two 70-year-old women in India gave birth, thanks to donor eggs and disturbingly enthusiastic doctors. One woman’s husband was 72; the other’s was 77.
These, though, are the headlines. The real story is less titillating, but it tells us a great deal more about how we’ll be living in the coming years: what our families and our workforce will look like, how healthy we’ll be, and also—not to be too eugenicist about it—the future well-being of the human race.
That women become mothers later than they used to will surprise no one. All you have to do is study the faces of the women pushing baby strollers, especially on the streets of coastal cities or their suburban counterparts.
American first-time mothers have aged about four years since 1970—as of 2010, they were 25.4 as opposed to 21.5. That average, of course, obscures a lot of regional, ethnic, and educational variation.
The average new mother from Massachusetts, for instance, was 28; the Mississippian was 22.9. The Asian American first-time mother was 29.1; the African American 23.1. A college-educated woman had a better than one-in-three chance of having her first child at 30 or older; the odds that a woman with less education would wait that long were no better than one in ten.
It badly misstates the phenomenon to associate it only with women: Fathers have been getting older at the same rate as mothers. First-time fathers have been about three years older than first-time mothers for several decades, and they still are.
The average American man is between 27 and 28 when he becomes a father. Meanwhile, as the U.S. birth rate slumps due to the recession, only men and women over 40 have kept having more babies than they did in the past.
In short, the growth spurt in American parenthood is not among rich septuagenarians or famous political wives approaching or past menopause, but among roughly middle-aged couples with moderate age gaps between them, like my husband and me.
OK, I’ll admit it. We’re on the outer edge of the demographic bulge. My husband was in his mid-forties and I was 37—two years past the age when doctors start scribbling AMA, Advanced Maternal Age, on the charts of mothers-to-be—before we called a fertility doctor.
… Soon, I learned that medical researchers, sociologists, and demographers were more worried about the proliferation of older parents than my friends and I were.
They talked to me at length about a vicious cycle of declining fertility, especially in the industrialized world, and also about the damage caused by assisted-reproductive technologies (ART) that are commonly used on people past their peak childbearing years.
This past May, an article in the New England Journal of Medicine found that 8.3 percent of children born with the help of ART had defects, whereas, of those born without it, only 5.8 percent had defects.
… What science tells us about the aging parental body should alarm us more than it does. Age diminishes a woman’s fertility; every woman knows that, although several surveys have shown that women—and men—consistently underestimate how sharp the drop-off can be for women after age 35.
The effects of maternal age on children aren’t as well-understood. As that age creeps upward, so do the chances that children will carry a chromosomal abnormality, such as a trisomy.
In a trisomy, a third chromosome inserts itself into one of the 23 pairs that most of us carry, so that a child’s cells carry 47 instead of 46 chromosomes. The most notorious trisomy is Down syndrome.
… We have been conditioned to think of reproductive age as a female-only concern, but it isn’t. For decades, neonatologists have known about birth defects linked to older fathers: dwarfism, Apert syndrome (a bone disorder that may result in an elongated head), Marfan syndrome (a disorder of the connective tissue that results in weirdly tall, skinny bodies), and cleft palates.
But the associations between parental age and birth defects were largely speculative until this year, when researchers in Iceland, using radically more powerful ways of looking at genomes, established that men pass on more de novo—that is, non-inherited and spontaneously occurring—genetic mutations to their children as they get older.
In the scientists’ study, published in Nature, they concluded that the number of genetic mutations that can be acquired from a father increases by two every year of his life, and doubles every 16, so that a 36-year-old man is twice as likely as a 20-year-old to bequeath de novo mutations to his children.
The Nature study ended by saying that the greater number of older dads could help to explain the 78 percent rise in autism cases over the past decade. Researchers have suspected links between autism and parental age for years.
One much-cited study from 2006 argued that the risk of bearing an autistic child jumps from six in 10,000 before a man reaches 30 to 32 in 10,000 when he’s 40—a more than fivefold increase.
When he reaches 50, it goes up to 52 in 10,000.
It should be noted that there are many skeptics when it comes to explaining the increase of autism; one school of thought holds that it’s the result of more doctors making diagnoses, better equipment and information for the doctors to make them with, and a vocal parent lobby that encourages them. But it increasingly looks as if autism cases have risen more than overdiagnosis can account for and that parental age, particularly paternal age, has something to do with that fact.
Why do older men make such unreliable sperm? Well, for one thing, unlike women, who are born with all their eggs, men start making sperm at puberty and keep doing so all their lives.
Each time a gonad cell divides to make spermatozoa, that’s another chance for its DNA to make a copy error. The gonads of a man who is 40 will have divided 610 times; at 50, that number goes up to 840. For another thing, as a man ages, his DNA’s self-repair mechanisms work less well.
…To the danger of age-related genetic mutations, geneticists are starting to add the danger of age-related epigenetic mutations—that is, changes in the way genes in sperm express themselves.
Epigenetics, a newish branch of genetics, studies how molecules latch onto genes or unhitch from them, directing many of the body’s crucial activities. The single most important process orchestrated by epigenetic notations is the stupendously complex unfurling of the fetus.
This extra-genetic music is written, in part, by life itself.
Epigenetically influenced traits, such as mental functioning and body size, are affected by the food we eat, the cigarettes we smoke, the toxins we ingest—and, of course, our age.
Sociologists have devoted many man-hours to demonstrating that older parents are richer, smarter, and more loving, on the whole, than younger ones.
And yet the tragic irony of epigenetics is that the same wised-up, more mature parents have had longer to absorb air-borne pollution, endocrine disruptors, pesticides, and herbicides.
They may have endured more stress, be it from poverty or overwork or lack of social status. All those assaults on the cells that make sperm DNA can add epimutations to regular mutations.
… At the center of research on older fathers, genetics, and neurological dysfunctions is Avi Reichenberg, a tall, wiry psychiatrist from King’s College in London. He jumps up a lot as he talks, and he has an ironic awareness of how nervous his work makes people, especially men.
He can identify: He had his children relatively late—mid-thirties—and fretted throughout his wife’s pregnancies.
Besides, he tells me, the fungibility of sperm is just plain disturbing.
Reichenberg likes to tell people about all the different ways that environmental influences alter epigenetic patterns on sperm DNA.
That old wives’ tale about hot baths or tight underwear leading to male infertility? It’s true. “Usually when you give that talk, men sitting like that”—he crossed his legs—“go like this,” he said, opening them back up.
… Dolores Malaspina, a short, elegantly coiffed psychiatrist who speaks in long, urgent paragraphs, has also spent her life worrying people about aging men’s effects on their children’s mental state —in fact, she could be said to be the dean of older-father alarmism. In 2001, Malaspina co-authored a ground-breaking study that concluded that men over 50 were three times more likely than men under 25 to father a schizophrenic child.
… “I often hear from teachers that the children of much older fathers seem more likely to have learning or social issues,” she told me. Now, she said, she’d proved that they can be.
Showing that aging men have as much to worry about as aging women, she told me, is a blow for equality between the sexes. “It’s a paradigm shift,” she said.
This paradigm shift may do more than just tip the balance of concern away from older mothers toward older fathers; it may also transform our definition of mental illness itself. …
…remarkable feature of the new older parenting is how happy women seem to be about it. It’s considered a feminist triumph, in part because it’s the product of feminist breakthroughs: birth control, which gives women the power to pace their own fertility, and access to good jobs, which gives them reason to delay it.
Women simply assume that having a serious career means having children later and that failing to follow that schedule condemns them to a lifetime of reduced opportunity—and they’re not wrong about that.
So each time an age limit is breached or a new ART procedure is announced, it’s met with celebration. Once again, technology has given us the chance to lead our lives in the proper sequence: education, then work, then financial stability, then children.
…As a result, the twenties have turned into a lull in the life cycle, when many young men and women educate themselves and embark on careers or journeys of self-discovery, or whatever it is one does when not surrounded by diapers and toys.
This is by no means a bad thing, for children or for adults.
Study after study has shown that the children of older parents grow up in wealthier households, lead more stable lives, and do better in school. After all, their parents are grown-ups.
But the experience of being an older parent also has its emotional disadvantages. For one thing, as soon as we procrastinators manage to have kids, we also become members of the “sandwich generation.”
That is, we’re caught between our toddlers tugging on one hand and our parents talking on the phone in the other, giving us the latest updates on their ailments.
Grandparents well into their senescence provide less of the support younger grandparents offer—the babysitting, the spoiling, the special bonds between children and their elders through which family traditions are passed.
… Another downside of bearing children late is that parents may not have all the children they dreamed of having, which can cause considerable pain.
… What haunts me about my children, though, is not the embarrassment they feel when their friends study my wrinkles or my husband’s salt-and-pepper temples. It’s the actuarial risk I run of dying before they’re ready to face the world. At an American Society for Reproductive Medicine meeting last year, two psychologists and a gynecologist antagonized a room full of fertility experts by making the unpopular but fairly obvious point that older parents die earlier in their children’s lives.
… When we look back at this era from some point in the future, I believe we’ll identify the worldwide fertility plunge as the most important legacy of old-age parenting.
A half-century ago, demographers were issuing neo-Malthusian manifestoes about the overpeopling of the Earth.
Nowadays, they talk about the disappearance of the young.
Fertility has fallen below replacement rates in the majority of the 224 countries—developing as well as developed— from which the United Nations collects such information, which means that more people die in those places than are born.
Baby-making has slumped by an astonishing 45 percent around the world since 1975.
By 2010, the average number of births per woman had dropped from 4.7 to 2.6.
No trend that large has a simple explanation, but the biggest factor, according to population experts, is the rising age of parents—mothers, really— at the birth of their first children.
That number, above all others, predicts how large a family will ultimately be.
Fewer people, of course, means less demand for food, land, energy, and all the Earth’s other limited resources.
But the environmental benefits have to be balanced against the social costs.
Countries that can’t replenish their own numbers won’t have younger workers to replace those who retire. Older workers will have to be retrained to cope with the new technologies that have transmogrified the workplace.
… If you’re a doctor, you see clearly what is to be done, and you’re sure it will be. “People are going to change their reproductive habits,” said Alan S. Brown, a professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at the Columbia University medical school and the editor of an important anthology on the origins of schizophrenia. They will simply have to “procreate earlier,” he replied. As for men worried about the effects of age on children, they will “bank sperm and freeze it.”
Would-be mothers have been freezing their eggs since the mid-’80s. Potential fathers don’t seem likely to rush out to bank their sperm any time soon, though. Dr. Bruce Gilbert, a urologist and fertility specialist who runs a private sperm bank on Long Island, told me he has heard of few men doing so, if any.
Doctors have a hard enough time convincing men to store their sperm when they’re facing cancer treatments that may poison their gonads, Gilbert said.
The only time he saw an influx of men coming in to store sperm was during the first Gulf war, when soldiers were being shipped out to battlefields awash in toxic agents.
… What else can be done? Partly the same old things that are already being done, though perhaps not passionately enough.
Doctors will have to get out the word about how much male and female fertility wanes after 35; make it clear that fertility treatments work less well with age; warn that tinkering with reproductive material at the very earliest stages of a fetus’s growth may have molecular effects we’re only beginning to understand.
But I’m not convinced that medical advice alone will lead people to “procreate earlier.” You don’t buck decades-old, worldwide trends that easily. The problem seems particularly hard to solve in the United States, where it’s difficult to imagine legislators adopting the kinds of policies it will take to stop the fertility collapse.
Demographers and sociologists agree about what those policies are.
The main obstacle to be overcome is the unequal division of the opportunity cost of babies. When women enjoy the same access to education and professional advancement as men but face penalties for reproducing, then, unsurprisingly, they don’t.
Some experts hold that, to make up for mothers’ lost incomes, we should simply hand over cash for children: direct and indirect subsidies, tax exemptions, mortgage-forgiveness programs. Cash-for-babies programs have been tried all over the world—Hungary and Russia, among other places—with mixed results…
… More immediately effective are policies in place in many countries in Western Europe (France, Italy, Sweden) that help women and men juggle work and child rearing. These include subsidized child care, generous parental leaves, and laws that guarantee parents’ jobs when they go back to work.
Programs that let parents stay in the workforce instead of dropping out allow them to earn more over the course of their lifetimes.
It won’t be easy to make the world more baby-friendly, but if we were to try, we’d have to restructure the professions so that the most intensely competitive stage of a career doesn’t occur right at the moment when couples should be lavishing attention on infants. We’d have to stop thinking of work-life balance as a women’s problem, and reframe it as a basic human right….