• Eszter Barra-Johnson

    By Dr. Eszter Barra-Johnson, Kaplan University, Adjunct Faculty



    The age of the mother at birth has been historically thought to be the decisive factor in the health of her children. This review of the literature is focusing on the father's age as a possible influential factor of academic success, as well as the prevalence of certain mental health disorders, which-according to the authors-could be minimized if older men avoided becoming fathers. Further studies are necessary to determine reliability of these findings.

    Mental Illness and Academic Success in Children of Older Fathers

    Are children of older parents more intelligent or more prone to mental health problems than their peers born to younger parents, as a general rule? This question is not at all new, for inquiring minds always wanted to know the ideal age for becoming a parent. In ancient Greece, most marriages were arranged by the bride's 14th year of age, while the groom was usually in his thirties (Scheidel, 2008). In ancient Rome, young men of high social standing would usually marry in their mid-twenties, after some years of military and community service (such as collecting legal experience by serving in courts). However, the wives they chose were usually  much younger, between 15 and 20 years of age (Nigel, 2007, p. 97). Although we do not have records about the number of children born to fathers much older than their spouses from those times, nor do we know how many of those children were considered less than healthy psychologically, it can be assumed that most marriages soon resulted in at least one offspring, and that it was widely accepted that the younger the mother's age, the healthier the child would turn out. As for genetics, it was known for centuries that each living organism carries on some of its parental traits, and this wisdom-not yet supported by science-had been widely utilized in cross-pollination of plants and animal breeding, in order to produce flora and fauna with the most favorable traits . However, when a child was born less than 100 percent healthy, or developed mental health issues in early childhood, its mother was often blamed as the sole cause of any infirmity. It wasn't until the nineteenth century that the foundation for genetic science was laid by Gregor Mendel, who showed a keen interest in what he called the autosomal inheritance of traits; and it was gradually understood that both the father's and the mother's genes contribute to the mental and physical health of the child (Weiling, 1991; Griffiths, Miller, Suzuki, et al., 2000), and that genetically caused problems begin at conception. Eventually, scientists arrived at the modern definition of a gene, which is that a gene is a variable portion of DNA that codes for a single cellular function (Griffiths, Miller, Suzuki, et al., 2000). 

    The ideal child-bearing age has been discussed for decades in psychology, during the twentieth century; but studies exploring both the gender and the age of the parents at the time their child was conceived (or born) were not available. It wasn't until recent years that researchers began to increasingly dedicate their attention to a possible connection between the age of the parents at birth and the prevalence of certain mental health problems in their children. One recent study conducted by Cambridge University (UK) and Danish researchers Thorlund Parner, Baron-Cohen, Lauritsen, et al. (2012) explored whether there is an association between the age of the parents and the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in their children. The researchers used both a cohort design and a sibling design, meaning that they compared kids with children from other parents, as well as with their own siblings (none of the children were twins). A total of 1,311,736 children were included in this study. Of all children reviewed, 9,556 were diagnosed with some form of autism. Thorlund-Parner, Baron-Cohen, Lauritsen, et al. (2012) found a positive association between both the respective maternal and the paternal age and the risk of ASD in the offspring. If the mother was younger than 35 years, the prevalence of ASD increased as the father's age also increased. For fathers younger than 35 years, the risk of ASD increased as the age of the mother also increased. The researchers concluded that there is an association between parental age and ASD in the cohort study, but the combined underlying mechanisms through which paternal and maternal age impact ASD risk do not seem to act synergistically. The results of the sibling analysis suggested that the association between parental age and ASD found in the cohort study cannot be accounted for by common genetic and environmental factors.

    On the trail of the above study, Swedish researchers D'Onofrio, Rickert, Frans, et al. (2014) postulated that a possible explanation for the above findings could be that it is not the mother's, but the father's age that accounts for the increased risk of an autistic child (or a child with other mental health problems) being born. Previous research findings indicated that in older fathers the likelihood of genetic mutations during spermatogenesis (the process of sperm cell development) increases, which could lead to increased risk of psychiatric problems in their children; although the findings were inconsistent, due to many confounding variables that were not sufficiently accounted for in those studies (D'Onofrio, Rickert, Frans, et al., 2014). Therefore, the Swedish researcher team designed a quasi-experimental cohort study that involved all children born in Sweden between 1973 and 2001 (N = 2,615,081). They hypothesized that the risk of psychiatric and academic problems would correspond with higher paternal age. The researchers looked at psychiatric problems, such as autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), psychosis, bipolar disorder, suicide attempts, and substance use problem, and obvious lack of academic progress (failing grades and low educational attainment) in the medical and academic records of these individuals. They found that in the cohort-comparison, higher paternal age was associated with increased risk of several psychiatric disorders, such as autism, psychosis, and various forms of bipolar disorders; but the number of other mental health problems was actually lower than in children with younger fathers (D'Onofrio, Rickert, Frans, et al., 2014). 

    When compared with their own siblings from the same father, the findings indicated that the higher age of the father had a strong association with the presence of every type of mental health problem listed; so the children born to older fathers exhibited more mental health issues and academic struggles than their siblings who were born to the same fathers at a younger paternal age. The magnitude of these associations proved to be as large as, or, in some cases, larger than hypothesized at the beginning of the project (D'Onofrio, Rickert, Frans, et al., 2014). In plain English, compared with offspring born to fathers between the ages of 20 and 24 years, children of fathers 45 years and older were at heightened risk of autism (hazard ratio [HR] = 3.45; 95% CI, 1.62-7.33), ADHD (HR = 13.13; 95% CI, 6.85-25.16), psychosis (HR = 2.07; 95% CI, 1.35-3.20), bipolar disorder (HR = 24.70; 95% CI, 12.12-50.31), suicide attempts (HR = 2.72; 95% CI, 2.08-3.56), substance use problems (HR = 2.44; 95% CI, 1.98-2.99), failing a grade (odds ratio [OR] = 1.59; 95% CI, 1.37-1.85), and low educational attainment (OR = 1.70; 95% CI, 1.50-1.93) compared with their siblings from the same father and mother (D'Onofrio, Rickert, Frans, et al., 2014). In order to ascertain high internal and external validity of the findings, the researchers performed additional analyses, which led to similar results. The hypothesis was therefore retained that the presence of genetic mutations that occur during spermatogenesis is associated with mental health problems in children born to older fathers. Compared to fathers in their early twenties, for example, a man who became a father at 45 would be 13 times more likely to have a child with ADHD, 25 times more likely to have a child with bipolar disorder, and 3.5 times more likely to have child with ASD (Carroll, 2014). Children born to older fathers also face more challenges in academia, as they are about 59 percent more likely to get failing grades in school and 70 percent more likely to drop out. But the perhaps most disturbing among all findings was that kids in this group were found to have more than twice the risk of developing suicidal ideation or a substance abuse problem.

    In summary, research findings indicate something that was not yet published before: a strong association between the father's age and the prevalence of mental health and academic problems in the child. This may place heightened responsibility on older fathers and their respective partners, as it brings up the need for careful consideration of some important decisions in family systems regarding the number of offspring and the optimal age for welcoming a child on board.



    Carroll, L. (2014). Older Dads at Risk of Passing on Mental Health Disorders. Retrieved from


    Thorlund Parner, E., Baron-Cohen, S., Lauritsen, M. B. , Jørgensen, M., Schieve, L.A., Yeargin  Allsopp, J., and Obel, C. (2012). Parental Age and Autism Spectrum Disorders. Annals of Epidemiology, 22(3), 143-150. doi:10.1016/j.annepidem.2011.12.006

    D'Onofrio, B.M., Rickert, M.E., Frans, E., Kuja-Halkola, R., Almqvist, C., Sjölander, A., Larsson, H., and Lichtenstein,P. (2014). Paternal Age at Childbearing and Offspring Psychiatric and Academic Morbidity. JAMA Psychiatry. Published online February 26, 2014. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.4525

    Scheidel, W. (2008). Monogamy and Polygamy in Greece, Rome, and World History. Retrieved from http://www.princeton.edu/~pswpc/pdfs/scheidel/060807.pdf

    Nigel, R. (2007). Life in Ancient Rome. Anness Publishing Ltd., p. 97.

    Weiling, F. (1991). Historical Study: Johann Gregor Mendel 1822-1884. American Journal of Medical Genetics, 40(1), 1-25; discussion 26. doi:10.1002/ajmg.1320400103

    Griffiths, A.J.F., Miller, J.H., Suzuki. D.T., et al. (2000). An Introduction to Genetic Analysis (7th ed.). New York: W.H. Freeman Publisher.


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