It’s commonly accepted that getting pregnant past age 40 incurs plenty of risk. Older women have a more difficult time conceiving and carrying a baby to term compared to younger women, plus they stand a greater chance of developing pregnancy-related complications of all sorts. The risk of having a Downs Syndrome baby, for instance, runs about one in 2000 when the mother is in her 20s, but that risk jumps dramatically to one in 30 when the mother is in her mid 40s; other birth defects also become far more likely with maternal age. Plus, older women run a much greater chance of developing pregnancy-related health problems themselves.
But anyone who looks askance at a pregnant middle-aged woman had better think twice, based on data from a new study of late-in-life pregnancies. The study, out of the University of Utah, found that women who give birth late in life live longer, and so do their brothers. (You read that correctly.) The wives of those brothers, though, live to a normal age, which scientists interpret to mean that genetics play a role in the phenomenon.
“If you have a female relative who had children after age 45, then there may be some genetic benefit in your family that will enhance your longevity,” said study director Ken Smith.
The data for the study comes from a huge sample population of almost two million Mormon and Catholic individuals born between 1670 and1869. (Churches keep great records.) Because of the religious views of these groups, the researchers assumed that the subjects kept having children as long as fertility allowed, without using contraception. And what they found was significant: women who gave birth between ages 41 and 44 had a six- to seven-percent reduced chance of dying each year after age 50 compared to women who stopped having children earlier. Even more dramatically, those who had babies after age 45 showed a 14- to 17-percent reduced annual mortality risk. The men who had three sisters, one of whom gave birth late in life, had a 20- to 22-percent lower mortality rate.
The longevity benefit, researchers suspect, derives from the possibility that the same genes that control longevity also control fertility. This would mean that women who continue to be fertile into their late 40s and 50s have a genetic predisposition to live longer, which their brothers share. And yet the researchers assert that genetics probably play only a 25 percent role in the longevity factor. The key element, according to Dr. Smith, “could be something that is not inherited. It could be good nutrition or really good living, suggesting that if you are a healthier mom you live longer.”
While it makes sense, based on the data, that genetics do play a key role in longevity, it also makes sense that those who share a lifestyle will share the health consequences and benefits derived from that lifestyle. (For example, as I’ve said many times before, lifestyle, not genetics, plays the dominant role in breast cancer.) Again, the husbands and wives in the study didn’t necessarily show similar longevity patterns while siblings did, which may suggest that the siblings shared healthy diet and living during their formative years, and perhaps that counted most. Maybe certain subjects had a genetic advantage at birth, which combined with good nutrition and healthy conditions growing up helped them to remain fertile into middle age and live longer, while their siblings also reaped those same benefits.
This isn’t the first study finding a link between longevity and late-life pregnancy. A 2002 study out of the University of California in Davis and the National Health Research Institutes in Taiwan found that women who have children at age 50 have a 38 percent reduction in mortality. A Chinese study found a positive correlation between late childbearing and survival past 100. Other studies have noted a link between late-onset menopause and longevity.
You can’t tweak your genes, and research indicates that artificially extending fertility so you can have late-life babies won’t help you to live longer, but you certainly can initiate routines that prolong your life. The necessity of good diet combined with exercise provides the baseline. Beyond that, since fertility and long life may be intertwined, there’s good reason to initiate a natural hormone-balancing regimen. Other key factors include cleansing and detoxing regularly; supplementing with antioxidants, probiotics, enzymes, herbs, and food formed vitamins; cutting the amount of food you consume; and staying positive mentally and emotionally.
PS: I wonder if this study explains why the patriarch Abraham lived to 175. After all, Sarah, his wife and half sister, gave birth to their son Isaac when she was 90.
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