The average age of first-time mothers has increased by four years over the past half century, according to science editor Judith Shulevitz in the December 20, 2012 issue of The New Republic. Many professional urban couples are postponing making babies until their 30s and early 40s. The downside is, as Shulevitz herself has experienced, recent rises in developmental disorders.
Some examples: The average new mother from Massachusetts is 28; in Mississippi it is 22.9. The Asian American first-time mother is 29.1; African American 23.1. A college-educated woman has a better than one-in-three chance of having her first child at 30 or older.
Shulevitz decries late-in-life reproduction, due to the amplified risks to the child and because delayed childbearing will result in a shortage of younger people to support, and replace, their progenitors. While we agree with the former, we dissent from the latter because of its societal self-serving motives.Judith and her husband weren’t ready for parenthood until she was in her mid-30s and her husband was “forty-something.” The doctor started her on a regimen of ovulation-stimulating hormones. The most popular fertility drug is clomiphene citrate, marketed as Clomid, or Serophene.
If the Clomid didn’t work, she might move on to: IVF (in vitro fertilization), ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection), GIFT (gamete intrafallopian transfer), or even ZIFT (zygote intrafallopian transfer). The Clomid and IVF worked.
“My baby boy seemed perfect. When he was three, though, the pediatrician told me that he had a fine-motor delay.” He needed occupational therapy for his mild case of “sensory-integration disorder.”
She soon found what she describes as, “a subculture of a subculture: that of mothers who spend hours a week getting services for developmentally challenged children. It seemed to me that an unusually large proportion of these women were older.”
Subsequently, the couple had a “natural” daughter. But Judith found herself meeting women of approximately her age with kids who had Asperger’s, autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention-deficit disorder, and sensory-integration disorder.
As we have previously discussed on this blog, and in our book, Enough of Us, according to the Centers for Disease Control, learning problems, attention-deficit disorders, autism and related disorders, and developmental delays are on the rise. Between 1997 and 2008 there has been about a 17 percent increase in these disabilities. According to Shulevitz, one in six American children had a developmental disability between 2006 and 2008. That’s about 1.8 million more children than a decade earlier.
Scientific evidence indicates that aging bodies of potential parents should elicit more cautious behavior than they apparently do. Would-be parents consistently underestimate how sharp the fertility drop-off can be for women after age 35. Inversely, the chances that children will carry a chromosomal abnormality, such as a trisomy—which includes Patau and Edwards syndromes—increase. Patau syndrome gives children cleft palates, mental retardation, and an 80 percent likelihood of dying in their first year. Edwards syndrome, features oddly shaped heads, clenched hands, and slow growth. Half of all Edwards syndrome babies die in the first week of life. In previous posts we have given the examples of the unfortunate offspring of politicians Rick Santorum and Sarah Palin.
The risk that a pregnancy will yield a trisomy rises from 2–3 percent when a woman is in her twenties to 30 percent when a woman is in her forties. When born to an older mother: spontaneous abortion, premature birth, being a twin or triplet, cerebral palsy, and low birth weight—leading to chronic health problems later in children’s lives—increase.
Researchers suspect a link between the 78 percent rise in autism over the last decade and the rise of parental age. One theory “is that the same wised-up, more mature parents have had longer to absorb airborne pollution, endocrine disruptors, pesticides, and herbicides.”
We will continue this discussion next week in Part II of this post.