In many Western countries, the age at which parents have their first baby has risen considerably during the past decades. In the Netherlands, for example, there has been a sharp increase in the number of women giving birth after age 35, just as the number of births to mothers who are under age 20 has declined. Psychiatric studies have shown that children of older parents have a higher risk of autism and schizophrenia.
To find out about what having older parents means for common health problems in childhood, my Consortium colleagues and I investigated whether the age of fathers and mothers at childbirth was related to mental health problems in more than 30,000 Dutch children between the ages of 10 and 12.
Emotional and behavioral problems in children were assessed by their fathers, mothers, and teachers, as well as by the children themselves. The study, published by Child Development in July 2019, analyzed data from four large population cohorts in the Netherlands.
The results were reassuring for parents who had their babies at a more advanced age: On average, the children of older parents had fewer behavioral problems, such as aggression and rule breaking, than the children of younger parents. Moreover, parental age was not related to children’s emotional problems, such as anxiety and depressed mood.
One explanation for this finding may be that older parents tend to be more highly educated, have higher incomes, and, consequently, live in better neighborhoods. The effects of parental age on behavioral problems were smaller when the socioeconomic differences between younger and older parents were taken into account, but there were still some small behavioral advantages for children of older parents, even in the same socioeconomic stratum. Because of their additional life experience, older parents may have better parenting skills, be more sensitive to their child’s needs, and provide more structure and guidance.
“From a biological point of view, advanced-age parenthood seems to be mainly disadvantageous, but socio-demographic and other factors might compensate for, or even outweigh, this biological disadvantage when it comes to mental health.”
It is also possible that the association between parental age and children’s problem behaviors can be explained by genetic factors. Behavioral problems are partly heritable, and individuals with such problems are more likely to take risks and have children at a younger age. They may well pass on such tendencies to their children through their genes, directly or indirectly.
From a biological point of view, advanced-age parenthood seems to be mainly disadvantageous, but socio-demographic and other factors might compensate for, or even outweigh, this biological disadvantage when it comes to mental health. We found no reason for older prospective parents to worry that their age might be associated with negative effects on the mental health of their children.