Risk for autism higher when parents are older

By Mieke Vlok
07 July 2015

A large-scale study undertaken by autism support organization, Autism Speaks, has found that older parents face a higher risk of having autistic children.

A large-scale study undertaken by autism support organization, Autism Speaks, has found that older parents face a higher risk of having autistic children.  

The study was undertaken in five different countries using a sample size of 5.7 million children - including more than 30,000 with autism. Researchers, say that the large sample size of this study has provided them with more reliable findings on the separate effects of maternal and paternal age on the risk of autism. "Parental age and autism has been linked … in different little samples here and there around the world," says Brian Lee, an associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Drexel University, "Not every single paper has found an association, but in general, the message seems to be that older parents face an increased risk of having a child with autism. This study – which is the most thorough and largest one that's been conducted so far – confirms it."

Interestingly, the study has also found that; not only are instances of autism higher among older parents but also in cases where there was a large age gap between the parents. “Autism rates also rose with widening gaps between two parents’ ages,’ explains website autismspeaks.org, ‘These rates were highest when dads were between 35 and 44 years old and their partners were 10 or more years younger. Conversely, rates rose when moms were in their 30s and their partners were 10 or more years younger.’

The studies also showed that the risk of autism increased significantly when fathers were older, with the highest risk factors occurring when fathers are in their 50’s. “The higher risk associated with fathers over 50 is consistent with the idea that genetic mutations in sperm increase with a man’s age and that these mutations can contribute to the development of autism,” says Autism Speaks in a summary of their findings.

But should older parents or parents with a 10-year or larger age gap think twice before starting a family? Maureen Durkin, a professor of population health sciences and pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison says no; "Most offspring of older parents do not develop autism – and the causal nature of the association is not fully understood."

SOURCES: AUTISMSPEAKS.ORG, HEALTH.USNEWS.COM

Compiled by Lindsay de Freitas.

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