Men, your biological clock ticks, too

Robert McCartney
Columnist September 1, 2012

A new medical study offering evidence that men, too, have to worry about their biological clocks if they desire parenthood has brought about a modest, but noteworthy, advance toward parity in our attitudes about the sexes.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

Researchers in Iceland found that older fathers transmit more genetic mutations to their offspring than younger ones. The effect, though small, grows with each year of age. That could help explain earlier research showing that children of older fathers are more at risk for disorders such as schizophrenia and autism.

The new report lit up the Internet when it was issued Aug. 22, with much of the traffic generated by women weary of shouldering all the responsibility for children’s health. A common theme in e-mails and Web postings was: “Look, LOOK, the father is to blame, too, if we wait too long and something goes wrong!”

We men can hardly fault women for such self-righteous satisfaction. Females experience relentless, unforgiving pressure to have children early. That’s partly because they eventually become infertile but also because of the risk of birth defects increases the later they have children.

“Women are constantly put in a place where they’re told, ‘You should be a mother.’ If you’re not a mother, what’s wrong with you,” said Jodi Jacobson, president of RH Reality Check, a Washington-based online publication on reproductive and sexual health.

By contrast, men have escaped accountability. Our bodies typically manufacture sperm into old age. Until recently, there wasn’t much reason to fear that delaying fatherhood would lead to negative health effects for the child.

Instead, in contemporary culture, older fathers draw criticism mainly because they’ll be too stiff to toss a ball around in the yard. Or, sometimes, because the age difference with the mother is unseemly.

However, as scientific evidence about dangers linked to older fathers has accumulated, the medical community is starting to warn the public.

Earlier this year, doctors at Rockville-based Shady Grove Fertility Center began telling men aged 45 and older that their risk of having unhealthy offspring could be higher now than when they were younger.

It’s not enough to warrant giving up on fatherhood. But it’s something to think about.

“The field is evolving from saying, ‘Age matters for women and not for men,’ to saying age probably matters some for men, too,” said Shady Grove physician Jason Bromer.

One expert who’s been speaking out for years is Harry Fisch, a New York-based urologist who published a book in 2005 called “The Male Biological Clock.” He warns not only about the rising chance of birth disorders with advancing years, but also about men’s declining fertility.

“Men need to know if you wait too long, you might not be able to have children and you might have genetic problems. You shouldn’t be thinking, ‘Let me just gallivant until I’m 40 or 50 and have a baby then,’ ” Fisch said. “It’s a paradigm shift in the way we’re thinking. We used to only blame the woman.”

This change raises an intriguing possibility. If men join women in thinking their age might affect their hopes for parenthood, would they adjust career plans and other life choices? Could they get more involved with their partners in making such decisions?

Some experts think the answer is yes.

The new research “levels the playing field a little bit in discussing family formation, and encourages both partners to have a role in this conversation,” said Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas, executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health in New York.

The shift could also reinforce a trend in which some young fathers are more engaged with their children than fathers in earlier generations.

“We’re seeing a cultural shift toward the caregiver being not just the mom anymore, and this [research] would probably encourage the father as well as the mother to want to have children sooner rather than later,” said Shireen Mitchell, vice chair of the District-based National Council of Women’s Organizations.

It’s a nice thought. I’ll believe the culture has changed for real when Hollywood makes a movie about a 35-year-old man desperate to get married because he’s worried his sperm quality is deteriorating.

For previous Robert McCartney columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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