Women nowadays are waiting longer to have babies than ever before. As a result, there’s already been lots of research into the risks that later-in-life pregnancies can have on mothers and babies. But in 2016 a new study revealed that becoming a mom after the age of 35 can actually be beneficial to your brain.
Back in 2014 The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that more women were having children after the age of 35. The average age that women gave birth to their first child had been rising for 40 years by that point. And 46 states, alongside Washington, DC, had seen an increase of women becoming first-time moms past their 35th birthday.
But why are so many women seemingly choosing to delay motherhood? Well, it appears that there are a number of reasons as to why the average mom is becoming older. For instance, females in their late 30s may feel more stable in their romantic and financial situations – and therefore more ready to start a family – than their younger counterparts.
One of the more obvious reasons that women may put off becoming mothers until later in their lives is so that they can focus on their careers. Lots of females are just establishing themselves in the workplace during their 20 and 30s. Therefore, they may feel unready to start a family, as Eve Feinberg, a professor of reproductive endocrinology and infertility at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, explained to USA Today in 2018.
Feinberg also believes that some women can have a lengthy wait “to find the right person to have a baby with.” This means that they are older when they settle down with their partners and start a family. Alternatively, psychologist Andrea Mechanick Braverman told USA Today that women may choose to venture into motherhood regardless of whether they’ve found their ideal man by the age of 40.
Another reason that women might delay becoming mothers is to do with their confidence in their own fertility or the ability of medicine to help them conceive. Feinberg explained, “They see all of these celebrities having babies in their 40s and 50s, and they think they can overcome all odds.”
But while more women are choosing to delay motherhood, the risks associated with having a child over the age of 35 have been well documented. And there is evidence to suggest that older moms face more complications. For example, the chances of a baby being born with a genetic disorder seem to increase with age.
The main thing working against wannabe moms as the years pass by is their biology. As females get older, the eggs that they produce in their ovaries decline in quality and in number. With that in mind, aging women may struggle to become pregnant, and the difficulties that can come with infertility can cause considerable emotional distress for couples.
Some fertility doctors recommend that women who are approaching the age of 35 and wanting children consider freezing their eggs or embryos. By doing so, they can massively improve their chances of becoming pregnant. Furthermore, it also boosts the odds that their baby will be healthy.
Beyond the age of 35, some women may find it more difficult to become pregnant as ovulation tends to be less frequent. Furthermore, the American Pregnancy Association has stated that women between the ages of 35 and 45 have a 20 to 35 percent chance of miscarriage. And there are yet more risks that older moms have to contend with.
As many of us know, women that become pregnant past the age of 35 are more at risk of developing complications. For instance, they have a higher chance of experiencing preeclampsia, gestational diabetes and intrauterine growth restriction, which can cause premature birth. It is also more likely that they will require a C-section, as older uteruses cannot always contract sufficiently for vaginal deliveries.
After birth, older moms are also more at risk of excessive bleeding and postpartum hemorrhage. There’s also evidence to suggest that babies born to older mothers have a greater chance of developing chromosomal problems, such as Down syndrome. That’s because the eggs of older women are more likely to develop chromosomal abnormalities.
And it’s not just medical risks that mothers over 35 have to contend with. There also appears to be a social stigma towards women who choose to give birth later in life. In 2014 Angel LaLiberte, a midwife and founder of AChildAfter40.com, alluded to this in an interview with the Toronto Sun. She said, “For the last five years, we’ve heard from thousands of women who feel socially marginalized by mommy groups simply due to their age.”
LaLiberte added, “We still uphold an idealized cultural stereotype of the ‘young mother’ and the idea of a woman ‘old enough to be a grandma’ having a baby is an image many people are still just not comfortable with… This is especially important as women having children after 40 have consistently come under fire for being selfish.”
Because older moms are sometimes mistaken for “the grandma” at the school gates, LaLiberte said, “They tend to start off feeling isolated, or like outsiders. They can even feel excluded or slighted from other groups of mothers.” And to make matters worse, because their friends elsewhere have probably already raised their children, they can feel left out of existing peer groups as well.
Elsewhere, pediatrician Dr. Ari Brown talked to the Toronto Star about the isolation some older mothers can experience. She said, “Because these moms are outliers, their other friends have kids who are in middle school or high school and have already been there and done that. Their friends don’t want to hang out in a playgroup with kids in diapers and lament how to handle temper tantrums – they want to go out for happy hour or a girls’ night – because their children are at a different stage of their lives.”
What’s more, some older parents may feel that they also lack support from within their own families. Because depending on the age they’re at when they welcome their child, their own parents may be too old to lend a hand in raising their children. And in some cases, older generations may not be around at all.
Another factor that women who come to motherhood later on in life should perhaps bear in mind is how their little one will feel about having an older mom. For example, might they feel pressure to care for their aging parents? Or will a bigger generation gap affect the bond between mother and child?
So there may seem to be a lot of potential risks to consider when having a child over the age of 35. However, coming to motherhood later in life may also come with benefits. According to Dr. Rebecca Starck, chair of the department of regional obstetrics and gynecology at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, giving birth at a later age isn’t always necessarily riskier.
As Starck told Time magazine, “A healthy 40-year-old can have a much less risky pregnancy than a healthy 28-year-old.” And potential problems became even less likely if women prepared for their pregnancy by incorporating exercise and healthy eating into their lifestyles. Once with child, continuing to eat well and generally looking after their bodies will also help them and their babies to stay healthy.
The CDC report from 2014 revealed that older first-time moms tended to be more educated and more likely to earn a higher income than younger women. With that in mind, they may experience less financial worries when it comes to welcoming their baby and raising their child.
Elsewhere, Braverman told USA Today, “The few studies that have been out there have suggested that older parents do well… The cards are stacked against women for delaying childbearing from a biological perspective, but from a social perspective, they are not. They get rewarded, financially and otherwise, for waiting.”
According to two studies that emerged in 2016, there could be some health benefits for older moms as well. Specifically, they may be expected to live longer and have better memories as they get older. So it seemed that there was finally some positive news for women who became mothers later on in life.
One of the studies was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. It focused on 830 post-menopausal women who took part in a series of tests to calculate their reaction time, memory, planning, attention, concentration, and visual perception. Alongside this, their reproductive history was logged including factors such as when they became pregnant, started menstruating and if they used birth control.
One of the major findings of the study was that women who had their last pregnancy above the age of 35 scored the most points on their verbal memory tests. This had involved them relaying a list of words or retelling a story after they’d become distracted. And that wasn’t the only encouraging discovery relating to older moms.
The study was the first such research to look at the link between cognitive function in later life and last-pregnancy age. It also found suggested that women who got pregnant for the first time at the age of 24 or beyond had better “executive functions” than those who conceived earlier. These skills relate to problem-solving, reasoning, working memory and attention skills.
Dr. Roksana Karim from the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine worked on the study. In a press release, she said, “Based on the findings, we would certainly not recommend that women wait until they’re 35 to close their family. But the study provides strong evidence that there is a positive association between later age at last pregnancy and late-life cognition.”
Scientists aren’t certain why later pregnancies may improve cognitive ability as women get older. However, it could be due to the fact that they receive a surge of progesterone and estrogen later on in their lives. And in animal studies, these hormones have been linked to better brain growth and function.
The study, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, also made another interesting discovery. Apparently, women who had started their menstrual cycle prior to 13 years of age also had better mental ability following the menopause. Theorizing on why this may be the case, Dr. Karim told Health, “Starting your period early means you have higher levels of the female sex hormone being produced by the ovaries.”
As a result, Karim suggested these hormones played a part in the development of the brain. She said, “Girls are receiving the optimal levels early. So, it’s possible that their brain structures are better developed compared to those who are exposed to estrogen levels associated with menstrual cycles at a later age.”
What’s more, women who had taken hormonal birth control for over a decade were also found to have greater mental power later on in life. According to Karim, that’s because these forms of contraception “maintain and sustain a stable level of sex hormones in our bloodstream.” And, she added, “Stable is good.”
Previously, research had seemed to suggest that women’s ability to think and their memories were negatively affected during pregnancy. But Wendy Mack, a professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine, believes that such studies failed to follow up on participants for long enough to determine any lasting effects.
According to Mack, it would be hard to determine any hormone-related benefits during, or soon after, pregnancy. She told Health, “The many bodily changes and psycho-social stressors during pregnancy also can impact women’s cognitive and emotional functions. So, it could be difficult to detect hormone-related benefits right away.”
Elsewhere, another study from 2016 found that delaying pregnancy could be linked to a longer lifespan. The discovery was made by Aladdin Shadyab from the University of California San Diego School of Medicine and a team of colleagues. They looked at 28,000 post-menopausal women from the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) to come to their surprising conclusion.
Through their research, Shadyab and his team discovered that around half of the 28,000 women in the WHI lived to the age of 90. And what set them apart from other participants in the study was that they were older when they’d had their first child. In fact, researchers found that women who became mothers past the age of 25 were 11 percent more likely to survive until 90 than those who did so earlier.
Shadyab then reported on his team’s findings in the American Journal of Public Health. He said, “Previously studies have looked at some reproductive events and their relationship to death, but not to longevity per se. Our study is the first to look at age at first childbirth and parity [number of children] in relation to survival to very advanced age.”
As part of their study, Shadyab’s team took into account a number of considerations that could affect a participants’ reproductive choices or longevity. These included their age, education, income, race, BMI, marital status, contraceptive use, whether they smoked and their alcohol use. However, even with relevant adjustments, the link between longevity and first childbirth age was still compelling.
The study also revealed that some participants with two to four children had a better chance of living longer than those who had one. But this link only existed among white women; it didn’t apply to black females. And it could be that several term pregnancies are an indication of better health, which may increase the chances of living longer.
It could also be suggested that women who have children later in life are more likely to have pursued higher education. And of course, there is a link between education and income. As a result, older moms could have better access to healthcare, helping them to live for longer than younger moms.
In any case, the studies which link later-life pregnancies to lifespan and memory do not suggest that women should delay having children. It is still true that older moms and their babies continue to be more at risk than younger mothers. So, in order to ensure your health and that of your baby, the best option is still to do it sooner rather than later.