A new study in the prestigious scientific journal Nature has shown a link between the risk of having a child with autism or schizophrenia and the age of the father. The older the dad, the greater the risk that changes in the genes of his sperm will produce the behavioral disorder.
The older a man gets, the greater the chance for random changes or mutations in his sperm. A similar problem was well understood for women, who at age 35 and older are more likely to have a child with Down syndrome or other hereditary disorders.
It’s long been known that autism is in part a genetic disease. This newest study adding to that evidence is important, somewhat frustrating and heartbreaking.
Unfortunately, this study is unlikely to convince the noisy and influential few who would still link vaccines with autism.
There have been far too many Congressional hearings inspired by fringe science that have ended in pressure on the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study vaccines as the culprit behind autism.
How many celebrities have gone on TV or led demonstrations demanding money for more studies of the alleged vaccine-autism link even though the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academy of Sciences, has twice dismissed any connection to vaccination. Why has it taken so long to discover the link to older dads and their genes as one possible contributor to rising autism rates? Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, Rob Schneider, Donald Trump turn out to be about as reliable guides to medical facts as Missouri Rep. Todd Akin and his distortions about how women’s bodies respond to rape.
The discovery of the role paternal age plays is frustrating because there are too many factors leading to decisions to delay having children. Women get the frequent message in the media that they can have children whenever they want— that technology makes parenting possible at any age. Young men and women find too little support from government or business for child-rearing.
The study is heartbreaking because it does not bode well for finding a cure for those already impacting by autism, schizophrenia and other age-related genetic disorders. The impact of genetic mutations is huge and it is systemic. These genes are going to interact with the environment is complex ways that are not likely to be easily reversed by a drug or any other quick fix.
It’s not news that sperm can carry genetic mutations with serious consequences. Just last month a study showed little changes in the DNA of sperm can make men more likely to be infertile. Other studies have linked age-related sperm mutations to diseases such as Apert syndrome, a rare disease that causes webbed fingers and deformities of the skull, and achondoplasia, which is a type of dwarfism.
So we now know that the biological clock ticks for both sexes when it comes to the health of children. And we now know that letting non-experts drive funding for biomedicine can lead to delays in getting the right answers to frightening epidemics such as autism. And we now know that prevention is something we need to think about when it comes to what we tell young people when they think about having kids. We now know a lot. Let’s see if our leaders can put that knowledge to use in the future.
Art Caplan, Ph.D., is the head of the division of medical ethics at the NYU Langone Medical Center