Saturday, April 26, 2008

"I don't want there to be a panic, but I think it's safe to say that the father's age should be one of many factors couples should consider

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The biological clock may no longer be ticking on just the woman's side of the bed.

If current research is correct, a man's baby-making alarm may start to ring not too long after a woman's chimes its final warning toll -- around age 40.

"I don't want there to be a panic, but I think it's safe to say that the father's age should be one of many factors couples should put into the equation when planning a family," says Karine Kleinhaus, MD, PhD, a researcher at Columbia University who recently spearheaded a study on paternal age and miscarriage.

Over the past decade -- and particularly during the last five years -- studies have been mounting indicating that the age of the father may affect the health of the offspring in more ways than one.

Risk of Birth Defects
Associations have been made between paternal age and the risk of birth defects and developmental disorders such as autism and Apert's syndrome, as well as mental illnesses like schizophrenia. Moreover, studies conducted by Kleinhaus and colleagues at Columbia University looked at some 90,000 births and concluded the older a man is when he conceives a child, the more likely his partner is to miscarry -- even when she is young, healthy, and has no other risk factors.

Many believe this is just the beginning of what there is to learn.

"What we know now may be just the tip of the iceberg, particularly regarding birth issues we don't fully understand. We are just beginning to look at the role of a father's age. And as time goes by it's likely we are going to learn a lot more," says Jeremy Silverman, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York City, and the researcher of a study that associated paternal age with risks of autism.

Aging Dads: What Goes Wrong
Like every system in the body, experts say the male reproductive organs have not been spared the ravages of time.

"First there seems to be some clear changes that happen on a purely chemical level as a man ages. He has lower testosterone levels, lower DHEA, lower estrogen, plus higher levels of FSH and LH, which signal pretty much the same thing in men as in women -- reproductive failure," says Hackensack University embryologist Dave McCulloh, PhD, director of laboratory services at University Reproductive Associates in Hasbrouck Heights, N.J.

In a French study of nearly 2,000 men published in 2005 in the journal Fertility and Sterility, doctors concluded that even in couples undergoing IVF an aging father could figure into the pattern of pregnancy failure, more than previously thought.

But it's not just the idea of making fewer babies that is of concern. The new research is also tampering with conventional fertility wisdom, which has long asserted that because new sperm is made daily, male fertility remains untouchable.

And while the notion of unending sperm production hasn't changed, some researchers now believe that as a man ages, the task of churning out that daily supply is a little like trying to make a fresh batch of macaroni in a worn-out pasta machine.

In short, while the ingredients may be fresh, the mechanism that puts it all together gets slower and works less efficiently with age. And that means far fewer perfect macaroni -- and sperm -- to show for it.

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