Men Have Biological Clocks TooReading Time: 3 minutes
Robert De Niro and Al Pacino Have More in Common With Older Moms Than They Think, Recent research into ‘advanced paternal age’ tells us a lot about the challenges faced by dads like Robert De Niro and Al Pacino., Robert De Niro and Al Pacino babies: Older
Meet the (very old) parents: Robert De Niro, 79, welcomed a baby with his girlfriend recently. And now Al Pacino, 83, has confirmed that his own girlfriend is pregnant. Obviously, those girlfriends are much younger. ‘The male privilege of having kids whenever you want,’ as USA Today describes it, is on full display.
People who produce sperm should know, however, that their biological clocks are ticking too, even if not as rapidly and loudly as they are for the rest of us. Yes, it is much (ugh, much) easier for men to have kids later in life than women, and there are plenty of tales of dads fathering kids into their septuagenarian—and even nonagenarian!—years. But though male fertility doesn’t come to a menopausal halt the way female fertility does, it still declines with age. And even for men that do have ‘strong swimmers’ later in life—as a TMZ headline about De Niro’s baby news put it—there can be other pregnancy complications that they need to watch out for, experts say.
‘While there has been extensive research regarding infertility and comorbidities in the aging mother, relatively few studies have explored similar reproductive factors in aging men,’ wrote researchers at Rutgers in a paper published in 2019 that reviewed the literature on the risks associated with fathering kids as an older dad. This is of concern because the older-dad trend is not just about extreme cases involving celebrities. The age at which men become fathers has ticked upward, the authors explain, with more kids being born to fathers of ‘advanced paternal age’ than there were a few decades ago. (APA is not clearly defined, but it’s roughly as young as 40. Pacino and De Niro clearly fit it!)
While testicles do produce sperm throughout a male’s lifetime, a male’s sperm can have more genetic mutations as time goes on. Basically, ‘all of the cells in our body are adversely affected by aging,’ says Gloria Bachmann, who was a co-author on the 2019 paper and is the director of the Women’s Health Institute at Rutgers. Sperm are no exception. Older-male sperm can lead to pregnancy issues, Bachmann and her co-authors reported, ranging from gestational diabetes to preterm birth. Furthermore, a 2020 review paper suggests that APA is associated with miscarriages. And a paper published this May that looked at data from nearly 18 million births found that men over age 44 were more likely to father kids with congenital anomalies, i.e., birth defects. (There is, of course, a huge downside of having kids much, much later in life: Even rich people cannot live forever, and Pacino and De Niro may well miss their kids’ growing up.)
Bachmann and her co-authors conclude that men who plan on becoming older dads should receive counseling from their physicians—as older women already do. They also suggest that men planning on fathering kids at an advanced paternal age consider freezing their sperm. At least one urologist has even suggested that young men freeze their sperm just in case something suddenly happens to their quality, though that’s hardly a position that everyone holds.
As with many aspects of celebrity life, the Pacinos and De Niros of the world—or at least what we glimpse of them—present a picture of male fertility that is a little too easy-breezy compared with the reality. I suggested to Bachmann that men might get the wrong idea about fertility by considering these men to be role models. She was careful to note that there are more factors than paternal age that go into being a good dad: ‘Being a role model, provides guidance and love, good listener, teacher, has a great relationship with mother, can admit to mistakes, and most of all cherishes the role of being a father are extremely important.’ Not everyone sees it quite that way. The CEO of the male-fertility startup Legacy has gone so far as to tsk-tsk the famous men who become older dads, once saying in an interview, ‘In many ways, Mick Jagger is our greatest enemy because he had kids into his 70s.’
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