After all the controversy over the possible causes of the plague of autism in the West, a new study has finally revealed that older men are more likely to father a child who develops autism (or schizophrenia) because of random sperm mutations that become more numerous with advancing paternal age, and we live in an age of divorce, where men often remarry younger women and have children with them. The study found that the age of the mother has no effect on the risk for these disorders. While these kinds of mutations may account for 15 to 30% of autism cases, they don't necessarily account for all of them.
But the news about older fathers isn't all bad: delaying fatherhood may offer survival advantages for our kids. Other studies show that children with older fathers and grandfathers appear to be "genetically programmed" to live longer.
Researchers found that the average child born to a 20-year-old father had 25 random mutations that could be traced to the father's sperm, and that the number increased by two mutations every year of the father's age, reaching 65 mutations for offspring of 40-year-old men. But the average number of mutations coming from the mother’s side was 15, no matter how old she was (although a woman needs to be within a certain age range in order to become pregnant).
In the August 22nd edition of the New York Times, Benedict Carey quotes researcher Fred Volkmar as saying, "This study provides some of the first solid scientific evidence for a true increase in the condition" of autism. It is extremely well done and the sample meticulously characterized."
While women are born with all their eggs (and some of them deteriorate as they age, leading to increased cases of infants born with birth defects such as Down's Syndrome), the genetic make-up of sperm changes as a man ages and besides deteriorating, an older father's sperm may have developed DNA that leads to a longer life--a trait the man then passes to his children, meaning that, if the children are male, they may pass on the same advantage on to THEIR kids.
Autism has been characterized as the "geek disease," and highly educated men often have their families later. Carey quotes researcher Evan E. Eichler as saying, "You are going to have guys who look at this and say, 'Oh no, you mean I have to have all my kids when I'm 20 and stupid?' Well, of course not. You have to understand that the vast majority of these mutations have no consequences, and that there are tons of guys in their 50s who have healthy children."
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