TUESDAY, 29 JANUARY 2013

Fetal health not only a female affair

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While most people are used to considering the female ticking body clock, we tend to think that men have a lot more time.  Though true is one sense, if we want healthy babies maybe they too should be considering the age factor.  An interesting article in the New Republic highlights this issue among many others associated with the rising age of parents – it’s well worth a read.

It has long been known that the risk that a pregnancy will yield a trisomy, such as downs syndrome, rises astronomically as a woman heads towards to her forties.  However, Judith Shulevitz, a first time mother at 37 herself and now concerned by the trend, identifies that new research published this year finds with greater certainty that older men also pass on more genetic mutations to their children.  Birth defects linked to older fathers include dwarfism, Apert syndrome (a bone disorder that may result in an elongated head), Marfan syndrome (a disorder of the connective tissue that results in weirdly tall, skinny bodies), and cleft palates.  The research concludes that the number of genetic mutations that can be acquired from a father increases by two every year of his life, and doubles every 16, so that a 36-year-old man is twice as likely as a 20-year-old to bequeath such mutations to his children.

The detailed article also raises questions about the effect of fertility treatment – another outcome of so many people not trying to have children until their natural fertility is starting to wane.  Shulevitz observes that:

Fertility doctors do a lot of things to sperm and eggs that have not been rigorously tested, including keeping them in liquids (“culture media,” they’re called) teeming with chemicals that may or may not scramble an embryo’s development—no one knows for sure. There just isn’t a lot of data to work with: The fertility industry, which is notoriously under-regulated, does not give the government reports on what happens to the children it produces. As Wendy Chavkin, a professor of obstetrics and population studies at Columbia University’s school of public health, says, “We keep pulling off these technological marvels without the sober tracking of data you’d want to see before these things become widespread all over the world.”

Disturbingly, birth defects have also been associated with the commonly used fertility aid Clomid in a recent New England Journal of Medicine study.  The study’s lead researcher and a professor of pediatrics at the University of Adelaide, Michael Davies, estimates that there may be in excess of 500 preventable major birth defects occurring annually across Australia alone as a direct result of the drug.  Apparently, intracytoplasmic sperm injection is now also being associated with higher rates of birth defects.  Scary stuff when all these procedures are on the rise.

Shulevitz also worries about the effect on children of having older parents that will die much earlier in their lives – especially if they are more likely to be coping with abnormalities such as those mentioned above and may actually need greater parental support.  She uses a term which I haven't heard of before to describe this phenonomom – the ‘sandwich’ generation.  Apparently it describes a new generation that will have to care both for ailing parents and dependent children at the same time – with no help from the grandparents with their children obviously.  While there are no easy solutions to the trend, she suggests the following:

Doctors will have to get out the word about how much male and female fertility wanes after 35; make it clear that fertility treatments work less well with age; warn that tinkering with reproductive material at the very earliest stages of a fetus’s growth may have molecular effects we’re only beginning to understand.

She ends by hoping that her children won’t face the same ‘un-baby-friendly’ career pressures that she had to confront that ended up making her herself wait so long to have children.  Definitely food for thought.


MORE ON THESE TOPICS | Age, Birth Defects, Fertility

 
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Welcome to Demography Is Destiny, MercatorNet’s blog about human dignity and population. We launched this after seeing two themes crop up constantly in the media: that humans are a cancer which is destroying our planet and that world population is spiralling up to unsustainable levels. 

Although many people dress up these concerns in global warming T-shirts, the underlying issue is the Population Bomb. Back in the 1960s the Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich proclaimed that Malthus was right: the world faced mass starvation because there was too little food and too many people. Well, Ehrlich was proved wrong over and over again, and over and over again the fear comes back, like a vampire sucking optimism and hope out of modern society. I hope that this blog helps to put a stake through the heart of this dangerous and indefensible idea.

Dangerous, because the unsupported notion that the world cannot support its population is being used to promote human rights abuses, including coercive population programs. And indefensible, because world population, is actually on track to a steep decline. You could call it catastrophic, except that we are trying to avoid fostering apocalyptic fears on MercatorNet. We prefer to leave that to climate-change scaremongers. But it will certainly bring about enormous problems. At the moment, world population is about 6.8 billion. By the year 2050, it will rise to 9 billion, according to a United Nations scenario for mid-range fertility rates. But this global statistic conceals the fact that populations in many developed countries will actually decline. The number of elderly will increase enormously. Russia’s population will decline by one-fifth by 2050, for instance.

Huge problems are looming because of this “demographic winter” – social, financial, human rights, geo-political, cultural, and religious. We hope to track these changes, puncture illusions, and foster hope with Demography Is Destiny. And there is plenty of room for hope. After all, in the oft-quoted words of economist Julian Simon, people are the “ultimate resource”. We may not be over-populated, but we do have plenty of intelligent, inventive, adaptive people.

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