Older Parents, Greater Risk
That so-called "biological clock" ticks for men and women alike, causing the incidence of birth defects and other disorders in offspring to increase with either parent's age. While the risk starts rising in women who become pregnant past age 35, it begins later for men, in their mid-40s.

According to The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the March of Dimes Foundation, most birth defects are caused by an error with the growth of an egg or sperm, creating extra or missing chromosomes or parts of chromosomes. Chromosome error birth defects range from abnormal body structures and functions (such as heart or kidney conditions) to mental retardation.

Older Mothers

The birth defect associated with older women who bear children is Down syndrome-a combination of mental retardation and physical abnormalities, including heart defects. A woman's risk of having a baby with Down syndrome increases exponentially as she ages. According to the March of Dimes Foundation, the risk rises from 1 in 1,250 at age 25, to 1 in 400 at age 35, to 1 in 30 at age 45, and 1 in 10 at age 49.

Older Fathers

According to the New York Times ("Older Fathers Appear to Raise Risks of Genetic Disorders,") Chicago Tribune ("Older Dads' Offspring at Risk, Research Shows,") and Boston Globe ("Bipolar Risk Tied to Older Fathers,"), birth defects associated with older fathers include dwarfism, neurofibromatosis, Marfan syndrome and skull and facial abnormalities. Other disorders associated with older fathers include autism, epilepsy, schizophrenia and bipolar disease, although these disorders don't become evident until later in the child's life.

Advice for Older Parents-To-Be

If either prospective is an older parent, here are some tips for reducing your risk of having a baby with birth defects or disorders.

Before you conceive:

  • Get genetic testing and counseling. Consult with your health care provider about your health risks and any medications you take that may cause birth defects.

  • Follow a healthy lifestyle: eat nutritious foods, exercise regularly, reduce stress and achieve and maintain a healthy weight.

  • Don't smoke, drink alcohol or take illegal drugs.

  • (For the prospective mother) take folic acid and keep your immunizations up to date.

Pregnant women should:

  • Continue following a healthy lifestyle.

  • Take folic acid and prenatal vitamin supplements as directed by your health care provider.

  • Get regular prenatal care.

  • Properly manage any chronic health conditions.

Learn more from the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities