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How A Man's Biological Clock Ticks

A man's biological clock is ticking.

a blog by Suzanne Rico, March 5, 2014
I was 40 years old when I had my first child and 42 with my second, so the biological clock was a favorite topic of my physicians plus well meaning family and friends. Not once, however, through seven IVFs and four miscarriages, was my husband’s age raised as a red flag, even though he was beginning his fourth decade at the same time he was trying to begin a family.

Turns out, however, that a man’s fertility is not immune to the march of time. A new study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry shows that middle-aged men are more likely than their younger counterparts to have children that suffer from mental problems like autism, attention deficit disorder, and schizophrenia.

The study was done in Sweden--a country with a centralized health care system that keeps detailed medical records--and is the most comprehensive to date on how a man’s biological clock is ticking. Researchers looked at over 2.6 million people born from 1973 to 2001, tracking mental health history as well as noting the father's age. The most significant findings? A 13% increase in the risk of attention deficit disorder for a child with an older father and a 25% increase in the risk of bi-polar disorder. And while the risk of autism doubled (and psychosis tripled) with older dads, Dr. Guy Ringler, a fertility specialist with California Fertility Partners in Los Angeles, California, says these numbers sound scarier than they really are.

“Although these studies showed increased risks for the offspring of older fathers, the overall incidence of children with these disorders is still very low and these studies should not cause fear for all the fathers to be in their forties,” says Ringler. “What's important is that we start a discussion about the potential risks that can arise from delayed child bearing--that the risks are shared between men and women--and that we investigate ways to reduce these risks through changes in diet, lifestyle and environmental exposures.”

The Swedish study has already opened fresh debate among researchers, fertility specialists, and couples in middle age who are planning a family. The culprit, as you might guess, is a man’s sperm. As a man ages, so do his sperm cells, accumulating random genetic mutations. Most are harmless, but others have been linked to mental disorders in kids. This fact has Dr. Ringler looking into the future of reproductive medicine and how technology might be adapted to address the issue.

“These studies incite the question of whether men should consider preserving their genetically healthy sperm at younger reproductive ages for use in fertility procedures during their later reproductive years. Perhaps sperm freezing may become the new egg freezing.”

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