A Man’s Biological Clock: What’s The Best Age to Have Children?

Junior and senior "talking"Men have biological clocks, too. That may come as a surprise to Steve Martin, 67, who recently became a father for the first time. Pablo Picasso was 68 when his daughter Paloma was born. Tony Randall had his first child at age 77.

Fertility does decline in men with age, but much more gradually than with women. A woman’s fertility starts to decline after age 30, a process that speeds up in the late 30s and early 40s, and comes to an end with menopause, usually in the early 50s. Men’s fertility also starts to wane after age 30, but much more gradually. Witness Steve and Pablo and Tony.

The male biological clock, though, has a more serious downside: the baby’s health. When an older man conceives a child, the chances rise that the child will have autism, schizophrenia, or Down Syndrome, studies show. Miscarriage rates also rise with the father’s age. One reason may be rising levels of mutation in sperm: In one study, men at age 20 average 25 mutations, but by age 40, the average was 65.

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What’s the perfect age for a man to have a child? “Ideally, a man should try to have his first child before age 30,” says Harry Fisch, M.D., author of the book, The Male Biological Clock: The Startling News About Aging, Sexuality, and Fertility in Men and clinical professor of urology and reproductive medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York.  “Of course, many people who come to me for help are already in their 30s, 40s or older, so that advice is no longer helpful for them.”

Here’s what you can do to preserve your fertility and help your sperm stay as healthy as possible:

  • Maintain a normal weight. “Studies show that the bigger the waist, the lower a man’s testosterone level,” says Dr. Fisch. “You need the hormone testosterone to make normal, healthy sperm.”
  • Don’t smoke. It reduces blood flow to your penis and testicles, and normal blood flow is needed to make healthy sperm and to have sexual intercourse. “The penis is the dipstick of the body’s health and fertility,” says Fisch.
  • Discuss your medications with your doctor. Some drugs directly affect sperm, including certain antibiotics, sulfonamides, and some medicine prescribed to treat psoriasis, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Other drugs, including medicines to treat high blood pressure, can cause problems with erections and intercourse. When you want to conceive a child, talk to your doctor to be sure the medicines you take won’t affect your fertility or sperm quality, and if they do, talk about possibly going off of the medicine or switching drugs until after you have finished trying to have children.
  • Do not take testosterone replacement, unless your doctor prescribes it to you. Testosterone replacement therapy can cause decreased sperm count and infertility. “If you take testosterone from an outside source, the brain senses that you have enough testosterone and tells the testicles that you don’t need to produce any more testosterone,” says Dr. Fisch.  “Then the testicles don’t produce sperm as well.”
  • Avoid prostatitis or swelling and inflammation of the prostate gland, by drinking enough water daily, avoiding groin injuries (from riding horses or bikes, for example), and seeing your doctor at the first sign of groin pain and/or painful urination.
  • Skip the Jacuzzi. Hot tubs can overheat the testicles, reducing fertility.
  • Practice safe sex. Until you are ready to start a family, wear a condom and take other measures to prevent getting a sexually transmitted disease (STD), and if you do get an STD, have it treated as soon as possible. “STDs cause scarring of the ejaculatory ducts, where the sperm enter the prostate and out the urethra,” says Dr. Fisch. “Scarring of those ducts affects fertility.”

Is there an upper age limit beyond which men shouldn’t have children? “Nobody can say for certain, but research in this area has increased in recent years,” says Dr. Fisch. “As we learn more about the male biological clock we could discover more risk factors associated with advanced paternal age. What we know now may be just the tip of the iceberg.”

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Laura Flynn McCarthy is a New Hampshire-based writer who specializes in health and parenting topics.