New Moms

Parental Age is a 'Risk Factor' for Autism

| by Kev Leitch

A story today talks about how parental age may be a ‘risk factor’ (loaded phrase much?) for autism. According to the studies lead author (Dr. Maureen Durkin of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health):

What
we found was that actually it’s both parents age, and when you control
for one parent’s age you still see the effect of the other parent’s
age, and vice versa,

....

After the
researchers accounted for factors that might influence the results,
they found that children born to mothers aged 35 and older were 30
percent more likely than those whose mothers were 25 to 29 years old to
have been diagnosed with autism. Having a father who was 40 or older
boosted risk by 40 percent.

The study didn’t really look at why this might be but they did do a bit of educated blueskying:

Older
parents have had a longer time to sustain genetic damage to their sperm
or egg cells, as well as to store up environmental contaminants in
their bodies.

They are also more likely to have
used assisted reproduction technologies, which have been tied to poor
pregnancy outcomes. And there could be something about the behavioral
traits or psychological makeup of people who wait to have children that
boosts autism risk in their offspring.

Which is all a fancy
way of saying: I got nuthin’ so here’s an answer that covers
everything. Which is fair enough, it falls totally outside the remit of
the paper to answer those questions.

So now you can expect a
whole bunch of people to cast aspersions on this study, relating how
really they were only 19 when they had an autistic kid and that its all
a big conspiracy to detract from the evil vaccines. Whatever.

Its
quite an interesting study, the most recent of many that look at (and
find a connection) between parental age and autism. Does it move us
forward in terms of causation? Nope. Does that really matter? Nope. Its
still nice though to see science being done that is just that most
important of work – the hog work that starts to fill in the blanks of
the most basic facts surrounding an issue. Thanks to this study and
those preceding it I think its fair to say now that raised parental age
is a factor in autism causation. Not always but sometimes.

Another interesting bit of blueskying:

The
findings could also help explain why autism appears to be on the rise
in the United States, the researchers added, since the percentage of
children who are born to mothers 35 and older and fathers 40 and older
has risen steadily since 1980.

I think this is a
very interesting hypothesis to follow up on and I hope someone does.
But first of all of course we need to establish if autism is
‘on the rise’. Many people will tell you there’s an epidemic of autism
but there is in fact no valid evidence to support this supposition. I
hope some evidence can be forthcoming. We need it.

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