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Alison Motluk is a Toronto-based freelance journalist who publishes a weekly newsletter, HeyReprotech, about assisted reproduction.
I first got pregnant at 35. I knew I wasn’t young, but I didn’t think I was old. So when I heard the term “geriatric pregnancy” applied to me, it was a shock. I was angry and insulted, but also a little unnerved. Was it true? The hospital had the decency to update its signage to “special pregnancy,” but the staff still used that other word, and the stigma stuck.
I get it, sort of. There is more risk during pregnancy if you’re – how to put it delicately – not young. Also, it was partly just a judgment on the age of my eggs. They’d been kicking around since I was a fetus myself, and science knew that by my mid-thirties, some of them were not going to be so good.
But here’s the thing. My husband was older than me. He was 40 when our second child was born (by then, I was almost 38). And no one ever said a word to him about his age. For me, it was all tests and hand-wringing, but for him... it was as though it didn’t matter at all.
But it does matter. Where reproduction is concerned, a man’s age is important too.
To be fair, we knew a bit less about all this back when my kids were born – they are adults now – but we didn’t know nothing. And there’s absolutely no excuse now. Men deserve to be warned not to wait too long before becoming dads.
The evidence suggests that by about age 40, the decline in sperm quality is fairly clear.
Let’s start with its physical attributes: The news isn’t great. One large systematic review that looked at 90 studies involving a combined total of 93,839 subjects, found that sperm from older men are more likely to be slow-moving, misshapen or damaged.
Older men’s sperm also tends to lead to a longer time to conception. A heterosexual couple is considered “infertile” if they can’t conceive naturally within one year. One study found that men over age 45 were five times more likely to take more than a year to conceive than men under age 25. Importantly, this was true even when the female partner was, well, not geriatric.
Studies on men going through in vitro fertilization (IVF) also found that older men fared less well. They were more likely to produce poor-quality embryos, for instance, and less likely to end up with a live birth.
This seems to be true in the general population as well. Pregnancies resulting from older men’s sperm are more likely to end in miscarriage or stillbirth. They are also more likely to result in preterm births.
Are couples ever told this? Is this taught to young men in sex ed?
Apparently, there’s no official consensus on what “old” even is in terms of fatherhood. Huh. It’s interesting to note, however, that sperm banks typically won’t accept sperm from men over age 40 – they could make whacks of money out of the stuff, but they won’t sell any product from older guys. Let that sink in.
Infertility, pregnancy loss and stillbirth are heartbreaking and can affect a man’s life and relationships in ways he can’t imagine.
But there are also consequences for the people who end up being born to these older fathers. Birth defects like a cleft lip or a hole in the diaphragm increase in likelihood with each year of paternal age. Cancers become more likely, too – leukemia, breast cancer, brain cancer.
There are neurological findings as well. People whose fathers turned 40 before they were born are almost six times more likely to have autism than people who had dads under 30. People whose fathers were older are also more likely to develop schizophrenia, according to several studies. Bipolar disorder, ADHD and obsessive compulsive disorder all appear to be more likely in people born to older dads.
For a long time, we just assumed that because men keep producing sperm until the end of their lives – it takes about 74 days to turn out a new batch – that it was all top-notch. But don’t let those celebrity dads fool you. Just because you can father a child at 73, 79 or even 83 – I’m looking at you, Mick Jagger, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino – it doesn’t mean you should.
It now appears that the stem cells that are the raw material for newly manufactured sperm acquire mutations and suffer physical damage over time, and the sperm they give rise to will carry those marks of age. It turns out that, for older men, newer models off the sperm assembly line often just aren’t as good as the vintage seed.
Given all the attention we pay to reproductive age when it comes to females, it’s strange that we don’t talk about men in this context more. Our spouses, brothers, sons and friends all deserve to know.
What else we’re thinking about:
I’m spending a lot of time these days listening to the Be Good Tanyas. I loved their music from the very first time I heard it on the CBC, less than a year ago. That banjo, those irreverent vocal combinations, those lyrics ... I was in Nashville only once in my life, and only for a day and a bit, but I remember the seedy little taverns, one after the other, each with a brand new sound. It felt so otherworldly. The Be Good Tanyas transport me there. I wish I could see them live in some intimate little space.
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