By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.
Do overweight older parents produce kids with birth defects?
There have been a lot of articles recently telling us that older parents are more likely to have children with autism, schizophrenia and birth defects. Is this true? And if it is true how do we explain what is going on here. Clearly, not every older parent has a child with a mental illness or birth defects. Nor do all offspring from obese parents develop autism or schizophrenia, not by a long shot. But the studies suggest an increased risk here. What is really going on? Here is my oversimplified counselor – metaphor explanation. For a more scientific explanation, you may want to talk with or read doctors and geneticists explanations.
My grandmother would be horrified with the thought that there could be such a thing as a baby or a mother being too fat. In her time skinny babies died a lot more than plump babies. Skinny mothers died more often too.
She was right about that, as far as it goes. Women who are significantly underweight from poverty, illness, or an eating disorder are more likely to have a miscarriage, a low birth weight baby or a child with birth defects. Not eating as a result of anxiety or depression can cause these problems also. But too skinny mothers are not the major source of problems. Not in this century anyway.
Grandma also had lots of aunts and cousins who had very large families. Women had children starting as young as they could and kept it up as long as they were fertile. That was before birth control. She just might have been right about baby’s needing to have some weight on their bones to survive. But there were some things grandma didn’t know.
Grandma wasn’t near as concerned about the age of the parents either. Older men marrying a very young woman was the norm and for good reasons. In colonial days there were forty sometimes fifty or more men for every woman. So the day that a woman began to have her period the men started calling on this marriage prospect. Lots of women married much older men because the men were financially secure. They married older men and then outlived them and married again.
Men remarried a whole lot more then than now also. People didn’t need to divorce then, their partners kept dying.
Women used to be a lot more delicate than they are now. They died in childbirth and they died every spring of the milk sickness. There were also food shortages and epidemics. Skinny people died a lot. Hence the belief that fat was healthy. Now we know that is not the whole story.
We have long suspected that the father’s age was a factor in some things like schizophrenia or autism. This became more of a theory as there were plenty of young men and fewer old men on their third fourth or fifth wife. Women did not use to have so many children late in life. Now with birth control, postponing children and fertility treatments there are, percentage-wise, more children born to older mothers. That has started us wondering if the mother’s age matters also.
Grandma would have said that healthy kids and long life were in the genes. She would have been partially right.
Genes are not the whole answer! The same gene can do different things at different times in your life. So there are genes and there is gene expression, how the gene acts when in a certain time and place. Think of this as manners for genes.
My genes gave me that nice dark hair when I was young. Somewhere along the way, they decided I was old enough I needed to look the part so now they give me gray hair. I am pretending they are not turning the gray to white. The Same gene for hair color but different age and different hair color. If I had a child at this age they could inherit the dark black hair of my youth but I am stuck with the old man color for no better reason than that I am getting – well older.
Now no cell is made to last forever. Cells like people need to reproduce. I hear that cells replace themselves every seven years. For argument’s sake let’s say that this is true. Why do cell mutilations keep happening? Why do cells have birth defects?
Think of this as the “copier theory of cells.” Every time a cell reproduces it makes a copy of its self. Have you ever made a copy and then when you can’t find the original had to make a copy of a copy? The more generations the copy goes through the more chance it will be fuzzy and someone will read it wrong. Older cells may get fuzzy also. The more copies the more chance for changes – mutations to creep in. Some of those changes in humans may be good things, adaptive changes. But most gene changes cause birth defects.
So what does being overweight or drinking alcohol have to do with birth defects? Alcohol for the record causes more preventable birth defects than anything else. Why is this?
Ever seen someone mark up an original before copying it? Imagine with me an original with white-out on it and some highlighter marks. Now before this stuff can dry the person puts the original on the copier glass and makes their copy. That messy stuff gets all over the glass. Every copy we make now has all those marks on it. They are all hard to read.
So when there are chemicals in the parents’ bloodstream, like alcohol, the copies that get made are fuzzy. More alcohol and the copies get worse. We know alcohol and drugs blur the mother’s contribution to the child’s genes. We also suspect that some chemicals may blur the father’s contribution also.
We used to think that if the mother took in too few calories bad things happened to her and the potential baby. Excess calories were stored as fat in the mother. No harm to the baby there right? Not so fast.
If the mother develops diabetes that high blood sugar could have an effect. So could all sorts of other hormones. So we think that the more overweight the mother the more the risks to the child. Now, remember risks do not equal disease. You can have a risk factor for a disorder and not get it. Strenuous excesses and severe dieting during pregnancy or when you are trying to get pregnant are not recommended. But the mother’s overall health, her efforts to keep her blood sugar under control and to avoid toxins, especially alcohol, just may increase the chances of a healthy child.
Being older or overweight may not be reasons to avoid having children but the increase in risk factors may explain why we are seeing more children born with certain mental and physical illnesses like autism, psychosis, and ADHD.
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