Babies face biological clock risk…from fathers

The image of the biological clock calling time on a woman's fertility has been used to stereotype the "Bridget Jones" generation of women who postpone settling down and having children . . . but now a world expert on male fertility claims it also ticks for men.

Alarm bells should also be ringing for men over 35 who want children, said Dr Harry Fisch of New York’s Columbia University, author of The Male Biological Clock: The Startling News About Ageing, Sexuality And Fertility In Men.

The book’s publication has sparked a major debate in America, with critics dismissing his theory as scaremongering, but cultural commentators agreeing that fatherhood has become more problematic for men as more women want to wait until later in life to try for a family.

Fisch, whose private surgery is on Manhattan’s prestigious Park Avenue, has pulled together research from all over the world and taken peer-reviewed results from his own team to show that male fertility starts to gradually taper off from the age of 35 onwards.

He explained: “The evidence has been mounting up over the past 15 years.

“Large studies have been done. It is now irrefutable that there is a decline in male fertility with age. We like to think that men get better with age – but that isn’t true when it comes to reproduction.”

Women have traditionally instigated having families but men should start thinking about having children much earlier, added Fisch. “They should think about it in college and give it equal priority to their career. Having children is as important for men as it is for women.”

Fisch also warned that men in their 40s and beyond trying for children could find their problems were exacerbated by the modern plagues of obesity and diabetes.

“Too many men don’t realise that what’s bad for the heart is bad for the penis, ” he said, adding that bad diet, smoking, drugs and lack of exercise increase the effects of ageing on their reproductive systems.

Some men suffered from declining sexual function and though drugs, such as Viagra, could help, the problem could be “like a dying canary in a coal mine – an indicator of a more serious underlying problem”.

Fisch’s work showed paternal age was also a big factor, particularly for women over 35, in incidence of all kinds of congenital abnormalities, including Down’s syndrome, schizophrenia, miscarriage, and the time taken to become pregnant.

According to Fisch’s book, women over 35 with younger partners had a higher chance of having a healthy baby. He suggested that this may be because younger women’s bodies are better at rejecting abnormal sperm from older males.

These findings, however, were questioned by Edinburgh University fertility specialist Stewart Irvine. He said that there was little accepted evidence that abnormalities were related to paternal age and the risks of complication were statistically low. “Some of this must be speculation, ” he said.

Irvine confirmed there was some evidence that male fertility declined with age – in Scotland an age limit of 40 is put on sperm donors – but said he would not advise older women wanting to conceive to go looking for younger partners. “The relationship is the most important thing.

Problems can arise if there is a big age gap. Older men can have a lot to offer.”

Jack O’Sullivan, of support group Fathers Direct, said the contemporary trend for men to become parents later in life is proving problematic.

“Men don’t really control fertility. They tend to go along with decisions that the woman makes, and because more women are waiting until later to have children, men are becoming fathers later than they perhaps want.

“Fertility problems are increasing and they can be really distressing for men as well as women although we don’t hear much about that.”

Dr John Bancroft, former director of the Kinsey Institute in the US who now lives in Oxford, said that as men may find themselves becoming “broody” in the same way that women do.

Brad Pitt’s recent high profile parting from Jennifer Aniston was reportedly due in part to the fact that he wanted children and she wasn’t ready. Pitt is 41 and Aniston is 36.

Sociology professor at New York State University Michelle Kimmel said that, in a culture where women are waiting later to have children, more men are having to deal with being kept hanging on. They know their partners may leave it too late or decide they don’t want children at all and, for perhaps the first time, large numbers of men are having to deal with the worry that they may end up missing the boat when it comes to fatherhood.

Kimmel said: “Having children is an enormous career obstacle for women and a career enhancer for men. Brad Pitt knows that it’s no obstacle for guys to have families. It makes them cooler and hipper and sexier. But for women it could be the kiss of death for their careers.”

Case Study: John Young became a firsttime father in his late 30s but he’d had a brush with fatherhood when he was 19 and his girlfriend thought she was pregnant. “I was devastated, then I got used to it and when she said a week later she wasn’t pregnant, I was quite disappointed.”

However, it was not until 20 years later that the carpenter became a father, after meeting wife Anne.

“I think she wanted a partner to settle down and have children with and so did I. We both felt the same urge to have children but we were too scared to say, ‘Let’s try for a baby, ‘ That would have been too big a step so we just said, ‘Let’s not use contraception and see what happens.’ We had only known each other for 18 months at that point.

“Anne and my sons James and Archie [pictured with father John] are my reason for living. My kids mean everything to me. They are funnier, smarter, more beautiful than everyone else’s children, although I know really they are the same.

“If I had done this 20 years ago I would have been able to enjoy it for the last 20 years but on the plus side having a life before was probably a good thing.

“I remember three months after James was born there was a cup final on and I was more interested in him and saying, ‘Son, there’s a goal, ‘ than in the football. If you had told me that a year before, I wouldn’t have believed it.”

The Scottish Sunday Herald
March 13th 2005