The clock ticks both ways

Does sperm have an expiration date?

Published February 27, 2007 6:53PM (EST)

At the moment, today's most e-mailed New York Times article is about vanishing honeybees. That's not particularly Broadsheet related, but speaking of (birds and) bees, two spots below it is a fascinating report on men's biological clocks.

By now it's pretty well accepted that the older a woman is when she gets pregnant, the more likely she is to have a difficult pregnancy and an increased risk of birth defects. But until now, sperm, unlike eggs, didn't have a set expiration date. According to the Times, that assumption is now being questioned. That's nice news for anyone feeling vindictive toward 70-year-old men having children with 26-year-old women, but bad for anyone else who, uh, wants to wait a while before having kids. (I fall into the latter camp.)

The Times refers to studies that suggested a link between older dads -- defined here as being in their middle to late 40s -- and increased rates of autism and schizophrenia. (Links to other health problems, like dwarfism and skull and facial abnormalities, have been known about for a while.) An Israeli study found that children whose fathers had them at age 40 or older were 5.7 times more likely to be autistic than kids whose dads were under 30 when they were born. Another Israeli study, based on the medical records of 87,907 births in Jerusalem between 1964 and 1976, found that "the risk of illness was doubled among children of fathers in their late 40s when compared with children of fathers under 25, and increased almost threefold in children born to fathers 50 and older," according to the Times. Yikes.

There's a lot of research still to be done about geriatric sperm. The Times points out that "doctors appear to be in no rush to set age guidelines or safety perimeters for would-be fathers, content instead to issue vague sooner-rather-than-later warnings."

That's fine for now, but I sure hope that there are people out there doing further investigation. It makes no sense, after all, that aging -- which takes a toll on all the body's cells -- would somehow leave sperm totally intact, and it's important to figure out the risks, for both men and women, of having babies later rather than sooner.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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