As people are starting to have children later in life, there might be a reason to buck the growing trend and plan to start a family sooner rather than later — that is, if you’re already middle-aged with no children.
Researchers from King’s College in London looked at the link between advanced paternal age at conception and the risk of developmental disorders that could interfere with a child’s maturing process. While the scientists were focused on the ages of the fathers, the children’s social skills were affected for both children with younger and older fathers, said Magdalena Janecka, a doctoral fellow at the Seaver Autism Center for Research and Treatment at Mount Sinai.
“Our study suggests that social skills are a key domain affected by paternal age. What was interesting is that the development of those skills was altered in the offspring of both older as well as very young fathers,” Janecka said in a press release. “In extreme cases, these effects may contribute to clinical disorders. Our study, however, suggests that they could also be much more subtle.”
The study used data from a sample that consisted of more than 15,000 pairs of British twins between the ages of 4 and 16. The social development of the children was tracked using the parents’ ratings (with the mother’s ratings used predominantly) of a Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire.
The questionnaire was a tool that assessed the children’s behavior using five “subdomains” including conduct problems, emotional symptoms, hyperactivity, peer problems and prosocial behavior. The prosocial behavior domain was the main focus of the study, the authors said.
The children with younger fathers (below age 25) and older fathers (over age 51) exhibited more prosocial behavior during early development. When they hit adolescence, they fell behind their peers with middle-aged fathers, the authors said.
“Our results reveal several important aspects of how paternal age at conception may affect offspring,” Janecka said. “We observed those effects in the general population, which suggests children born to very young or older fathers may find social situations more challenging, even if they do not meet the diagnostic criteria for autism.”
Though the results of the study fit the data linking advanced paternal age with disorders associated with social deficits, the reason behind the link could be different for fathers of different ages, she said.
“Further, increased importance of genetic factors observed in the offspring of older, but not very young fathers, suggests that there could be different mechanisms behind the effects at these two extremes of paternal age,” Janecka said. “Although the resulting behavioral profiles in their offspring were similar, the causes could be vastly different.”
If the developmental differences between the children can be confirmed, scientists would be able to figure out the source of the brain’s alterations during maturity, Janecka said.
“Identifying neural structures that are affected by paternal age at conception, and seeing how their development differs from the typical patterns, will allow us to better understand the mechanisms behind those effects of paternal age, as well as, likely, autism and schizophrenia,” she said.