Mental Illness in Children Blamed on Older Fathers

Mental Illness

According to a recent study done in Sweden, fathers older than 45 years old might be the reason children are born with mental illnesses. Similar to women, men seem to have a biological clock they need to be aware of as well. Since the 1970s, researchers in the country have said children born certain mental illnesses, like autism, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder have older fathers versus healthy kids with younger parents.

The research also showed children with older fathers have the increased risk of experiencing suicide, abuse and academic problems. “This study is adding to a growing body of research that suggests we also need to consider fathers’ age at childbearing,” said lead author Brian D’Onofrio.

Children born to older men show a 13 fold higher risk of developing the mental illness, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, and a 25 times greater chance of getting bipolar disorder Also, they run twice the risk of developing a psychosis. “What this study suggests is that the specific effect of older paternal age may actually be worse than we originally thought,” said D’Onofrio.

Researchers explain the increased risk might be due to genetic mutations in sperm cells. Men have to replenish their supply of sperm cells. The repetition of the process can cause random errors, called novo mutations, which can lead to mental disorders. A 20-something year old male can pass on an average 25 mutations, while a 40-year-old father might share over 65 with offspring. “As fathers get older, their sperm basically degrades,” D’Onofrio said. “There is potential for small errors to creep in.”

More couples in the United States over the age of 35 are deciding to have children. D’Onofrio mentioned the birth rate for women between the ages of 40 and 44 has increased by two percent a year from 2000 to 2012. He also said the average age for women has increased four years, and the age for men three years.

Not only did the study compare fathers of different ages, but researchers also put into consideration the social environment and the parents’ education and income. Older parents are more mentally and financially stable, but the age difference of older men versus younger males could be the real blame for a  mental illness found in a child.

The research was released Monday in the JAMA Psychiatry. The study included 2.6 million children born to 1.4 million fathers. Along with Dr. D’Onofrio, the findings were conducted by seven other co-authors including Paul Lichtenstein and Dr. Catarina Almqvist. The researchers plan on doing a study on comparing a child’s mental illness to the use of older couples utilizing infertility treatments.

According to the findings, 2,424 cases of autism were found out of about 900,000 children born from the years 1992 to 2001 6,819 cases of bipolar disorder were found out of 2.3 million children born from 1973 to 1997. D’Onofrio mentioned couples should be aware of the pros and cons of childbearing at any age. “We are not saying that all children born to older men are going to have psychiatric problems,” he said.

Despite the results, D’Onofrio notes the study can’t predict whether or not every child with an older father will develop a mental illness. He also mentions the chances of a mature man even having a kid with a mental disability remains small, so any illnesses found in children can’t necessarily be blamed on older fathers.

By April Littleton

The New York Times 

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