March 12, 2009

Publication: Evening Herald

Date: Wednesday, March 11, 2009 Page: 16

Author: Steve Connor


The trend for men to follow in the. fertile footsteps of Michael Douglas, Mick Jagger and Rupert Murdoch by becoming fathers in later life may have unforeseen and unwanted consequences for their children. The offspring of older fathers do less well in intelligence tests than the children of younger men, scientists say, and it may be the result of genetic problems with the sperm of men over 45.

The children of older mothers, by contrast, tend to fare better in intelligence tests than children with younger mothers. The researchers believe this may be the result of better nurturing by more mature women. It is well established that more older men are fathering children. In 1993, for instance, about 25pc of births within marriage in England and Wales were to fathers aged 35 to 54, but this had risen to 40pc by 2003. Well-known older fathers include the Harry Potter actor Sir Michael Gambon, (68), whose partner Philippa Hart, (44), is reportedly pregnant with their second child.

Twink's estranged husband David Agnew had a baby with his girlfriend Ruth Hickey when he was 45 she is 20 years his junior. Meanwhile, the BBC's world affairs editor, John Simpson who has a home in Dalkey in Dublin became a dad to a newborn in January 2006 when he was 61 with his second wife Dee Kruger. In women, it becomes increasingly difficult with age to conceive, but this is less so with men, who can father children for as long as they are capable of having sex which can be well into their 70s or 80s.

While there has been . extensive coverage of the health problems associated with older motherhood, scant attention has been paid to any potential difficulties faced by the children of older men. However, recent studies have linked paternal age with congenital problems such as neural tube defects and a range of medical disorders of later life, such as schizophrenia, dyslexia, bipolar disorder and autism.

The latest study was based on a retrospective analysis of nearly 33,500 children born in America between 1959 and 1965, whose cognitive abilities were tested at the ages of eight months, four years and seven years. In addition to being assessed on hand-to-eye co-ordination, sensory discrimination and conceptual knowledge, the older children were also tested on their reading, spelling and arithmetic ability. The new research follows on from a pioneering Irish study which found that advanced paternal age had an impact on development and intellect of a child.

Psychiatrist Mary Cannon of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland wrote in a team paper that elderly parents could result in conditions including schizophrenia, autism as well as physical problems including cleft lip, childhood cancers and congenital heart defectives. "The body of evidence implicating paternal age is a risk factor for a range of adverse offspring outcomes should not be ignored," she concluded.

John McGrath, of the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, who led the most recent study published in the online Public Library of Science, said there was a clear decrease in performance linked to paternal age something not seen in the children of older mothers. "The offspring of older fathers show impairments on a range of neurocognitive tasks during infancy and childhood. "The patterns of these findings were relatively consistent across ages and across neurocognitive domains," Professor McGrath said. "In light of secular trends to delayed fatherhood, the clinical implications of the mechanisms underlying these findings warrant closer scrutiny." The study, however, could not shed light on whether those children catch up with their peers in later life. Although women are born with all the cells that evolve into future egg cells, men produce new sperm cells throughout their lives. This was thought to protect against the sort of degradation of the sex cells seen in the female egg cells as they age.

Scientists now believe that as men age, their sperm are at an increased risk of picking up minor mutations that may be passed on to offspring and can affect their development. "While most of the neurocognitive differences were small at the individual level, these could have important implications from a public health perspective," Professor McGrath said. Elderly parents could result in… autism, cleft lip, cancers and heart defectives Children conceived by men over the age of 45 struggle in intelligence tests.