I was at a friend's birthday gathering recently and of course the topic of dating came up. We're all in our late 20s and are either settled down or having a blast on OkCupid (YEAH RIGHT!). One of my guy friends was talking about how he would prefer to date someone significantly younger than he is. He lives in a college town, so he definitely has plenty of younger ladies to choose from. I asked him why he wouldn't want to date someone closer to his age and, as expected, gave the "because science" excuse. You know, that whole notion that "older women have trouble getting pregnant and are more likely to have babies with 'birth defects.'"
This statement does of course have a basis in science: maternal age is indeed associated with decreased fertility and increased chances of "birth defects," which is typically a euphemism for disabilities such as Down Syndrome.
However, there are two major reasons why this excuse is bullshit: 1) the rate of women's decreased fertility with age is largely overblown, and 2) paternal age plays a role in both fertility AND risk of "birth defects."
I made my friend aware of these facts and he seemed unmoved. It seems that men like my friend are so committed to ageist misogyny that they're willfully overlooking recent scientific evidence contradicting their conventional wisdom that older woman = less likely to have "healthy" babies or any babies.
In addition, society as a whole stigmatizes living with a disability to the point of promoting the idea of women must have their babies before "a certain age" and men must ensure that they have their babies with women below "a certain age." (See also: the anti-vax movement, which at its core is the message that a child developing Autism is worse than the child or other children dying as a result of not being vaccinated.) In other words, society is very committed to the medical model of disabilities rather than the social model.
According to a report by Generations Ahead entitled A Disability Rights Analysis of Genetic Technologies, the medical model of disabilities posits that disabilities are illnesses that should be prevented and cured; in this model, the disabilities themselves are seen as "the problem." On the other hand, disability advocates support the social model of disabilities whereby society is seen as "the problem" rather than the disabilities themselves. The social model posits that society needs to be accepting of and adapt to disabilities and once this is achieved, having a disability will be seen as another way of living rather than a condition to prevent and cure. Until we reach a point at which the social model of disabilities is the norm, individuals will continue basing their reproductive decisions on avoiding having a child with a disability.
Below is a summary of scientific evidence debunking the notion that men must choose to settle with significantly younger women if they are to avoid fertility issues and having a child with a disability.
Age-related changes in women's fertility are exaggerated
According to a recent BBC article, a commonly-cited statistic regarding women's fertility is that after age 35, 1 in 3 women will not have conceived after a year of trying. However, Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University, discovered while researching for her book The Impatient Woman's Guide to Getting Pregnant that this statistic was based on data from 17th-19th Century birth records from France.
Perhaps we shouldn't be choosing our mates and basing our reproductive decisions based on this extremely outdated study? Let's see, how about this one from Dunson et al. published in 2004 showing that 82% of women ages 35-39 became pregnant within one year. That's quite a jump from the 66.67% chance based on the data from hundreds of years ago. To put this statistic in perspective, 86% of women ages 27-34 will become pregnant within one year, so there is not such an astronomical difference in fertility between women younger and older than 35 after all.
Furthermore, even if decreased fertility with age is still that much of a concern for you in light of these statistics, have you never heard of fertility treatments? Inability to conceive is a potentially fixable problem, much more fixable than ageist misogyny seems to be...
Men also have a "biological clock"
Speaking of fertility, it is relatively common knowledge that sperm count decreases with age. According to Dr. Harry Fisch, Director of the Male Reproductive Center at Columbia University and author of The Male Biological Clock, there is also a decline in semen volume, a decreased movement in the sperm, and an increase in abnormally shaped sperm (deviations from normal sperm shape are implicated in difficulty achieving pregnancy). In terms of what this means for men's reproductive health, Dr. Fisch recommends
If you are over 35, you should do everything you can to decrease your likelihood of having abnormal sperm or genetic abnormalities. That means leading a better lifestyle, quitting smoking, taking care of infections you might have, and taking care of varicoceles — enlarged veins in the scrotum that could harm sperm production. We're trying to reverse the biological clock by improving sperm production. A healthy lifestyle can help you delay these age factors that can lower fertility.
So there you have it: trouble conceiving doesn't happen just because you settle for some 35-year-old hag.
But Cyclist, BIRF DEFECTZ!!! DO NOT WANT!
Let me tell you a story...over a year ago, I received this news alert from the New York Times:
Breaking News Alert
Wednesday, August 22, 2012 — 1:01 PM EDT
Father's Age Is Linked to Risk of Autism and Schizophrenia
Older men are more likely than young ones to father a child who develops autism or schizophrenia, because of random mutations that become more numerous with advancing paternal age, scientists reported on Wednesday, in the first study to quantify the effect as it builds each year. The age of mothers had no bearing on the risk for these disorders, the study found.
Experts said that the finding was hardly reason to forgo fatherhood later in life, though it may have some influence on reproductive decisions. The overall risk to a man in his 40s or older is in the range of 2 percent, at most, and there are other contributing biological factors that are entirely unknown.
So considering that the idea of a biological clock applies almost exclusively to women, you can imagine how the internet reacted to this news, including our own Lindy West...
So yeah...about them birf defectz from those old hags having babies?
Anyway, in case you don't PubMed, Nature.com is here to explain the science behind this groundbreaking research:
Sperm is continually being generated by dividing precursor cells, which acquire new mutations with each division. By contrast, women are born with their lifelong complement of egg cells.
Fathers passed on nearly four times as many new mutations as mothers: on average, 55 versus 14. The father's age also accounted for nearly all of the variation in the number of new mutations in a child's genome, with the number of new mutations being passed on rising exponentially with paternal age. A 36-year-old will pass on twice as many mutations to his child as a man of 20, and a 70-year-old eight times as many, Stefánsson's team estimates.
But Cyclist, what about Down Syndrome? That's all old ladies' fault...
Um, you clearly don't PubMed because the risk for Down Syndrome is a combination of both maternal and paternal age. Let's ask our good friend WebMD to break down the key takeaways of this study:
Among older mothers over 40, researchers found that an increase of 50% in Down syndrome risk was attributable to the advanced age of the father.
In fact, researchers suggest that there is only a modest increase in Down syndrome risk for women 35-39 compared with women 30-35 years old, but the dramatic increase in Down syndrome births among women 35 to 39 years old is largely due to the influence of older fathers because older women tend to make babies with older men.
Ok, so you're still concerned about snaggin' 'em while they're young because Down Syndrome. So you're telling me that you'd prefer to settle down and make babies with a younger woman because you're afraid of fathering the 1 in 691 babies born annually with Down Syndrome? I'm...have a little trouble believing that this is why you prefer younger women...
Regarding those "other" birf defectz I haven't mentioned yet (e.g., heart malformations), a study published earlier this year shows that maternal age in itself is not a risk factor for nonchromosomal birth defects.
Sorry, bro, but you're running out of excuses for your ageist misogyny. If fertility issues and birth defects were that much of a concern for your family planning, you would have discovered early on in your Google search that your biological clock is ticking, too.
Furthermore, if society were as hung up on avoiding infertility and birth defects as it claims to be, there would be just as much of an uproar over men delaying parenthood as there is for women. But alas, we're so accustomed to holding women responsible for all aspects of family planning that there's no room for new information challenging our conventional wisdom.
There are a whole host of reasons men may seek to settle down with significantly younger women: being insecure, Peter Pan Syndrome, wanting someone who's easier to control, being disgusted by signs of aging that you yourself have...
However, in light of more recent research findings, older maternal age as a risk factor for fertility issues and birth defects is no longer a reason you can use to explain your preference for younger women.
So next time a nosy friend asks you to justify your predilection for college girls, just admit that you're a disciple of this guy.
Picture source: The Frisky