Healthy Investigates: How old is too old to get pregnant?
One in 25 babies is now born to a woman over 40 – and scientific advances mean even post-menopausal women can conceive. But is it really healthy to get pregnant when you’re older?
In the first half of the twentieth century, the numbers giving birth past 40 were around the same as they are now, and in 1947 – just after the Second World War – there were more babies born to 40-something mums than in 2012. It was only with reliable contraception from the 1960s that women began to complete their families earlier. So if you get pregnant in your late thirties or early forties, you’re probably following in the footsteps of your great-grandmothers! The difference is you may be trying to have your first or second at this age, whereas in the past most women would already have had several children by 40.
The odds aren’t all stacked against you
With all the negative headlines, it can be easy to feel gloomy about trying to conceive when you’re over 35. Fertility does decline sharply from your mid-thirties, and if your partner’s older, too, that may also have an impact – a study in the journal Fertility and Sterility found trying to conceive with a man over 45 can take up to five times longer. But research by the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences found most women, including those in their late thirties, will conceive naturally within two years of trying. ‘The fact is women in their late thirties and into their forties get pregnant all the time,’ says fertility expert Zita West.
The risks may be overstated
Older women are more likely to have a miscarriage. There’s also an increased risk of chromosomal abnormalities such as Down’s syndrome: by 45, the risk of having a baby with chromosomal abnormalities is one in 30, compared to one in 1000 at 30. But these problems are not just age-related. One in four pregnancies overall ends in miscarriage, and around 80 per cent of babies with Down’s are born to women under 35. And while pregnancy conditions such as gestational diabetes are more common in older women, modern screening and treatment means these can often be successfully managed.
You can supercharge your fertility
‘Although age is an important part of the equation, there are other factors involved,’ says West. ‘While a 40-year old will have fewer eggs than at 30, those she does have may well still be of good enough quality for conception.’ You can impact egg quality by having a healthy diet, with plenty of fruit, veg, protein and omega-3 fats (found in oily fish and seeds like linseeds), staying hydrated with water and herbal teas, and minimising alcohol, caffeine and stress. You should also take a pre-conception supplement containing folic acid and other crucial fertility nutrients. If you smoke, quit now – it can bring on menopause early – and try to get to a healthy weight, as being overweight may raise risk of infertility and miscarriage. ‘It may sound obvious, but it’s also vital to have lots of sex,’ says West. ‘Many older couples rush into IVF when really they just need to be having sex more regularly.’
Modern medicine may help
If you’re over 35 and have been trying to conceive for more than six months with no success, see your doctor – you may need extra help. Very few women over 45 can conceive with their own eggs, even with IVF. But there are other options, such as using donor eggs, which mean you can get pregnant even after menopause.
There are positives
British researchers have found children born to mums over 40 do better academically and are less likely to have accidents. Improved health and longer life spans mean older parents have few problems keeping up with little ones and generally stay fit and healthy well into their children’s adult years. The overall message? It’s still better to have children in your twenties or early thirties if you can. But if you’re not in a position to start a family until you’re older, try not to panic – you still have a good chance.