Feature Archive

The Changing Face of Fatherhood

More men are opting for fatherhood later in life for a variety of reasons. Are the challenges different?

By Denise Mann
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

Joseph had a change of heart at age 55 and reversed his vasectomy in honor of his second wife's 30th birthday.

After being forced into early retirement at age 45, Leonard decided it was time to settle down and start the family he never had time for.

Determined not to make the same mistakes that he did with his first family, Jeff began anew with his third wife. Jeff just turned 60.

Devastated by the loss of their only son, Edward and his wife -- both in their late 40s -- decided to have more children.

For a whole host of reasons, a growing number of men are opting to become later-in-life fathers. They join the ranks of such famous older dads as David Letterman, Tony Randall, Larry King, Anthony Quinn, Woody Allen, Charlie Chaplin, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, and Nobel Prize-winning author Saul Bellow.

The majority of children are still being born to men who are 20 to 34, but a December 2003 National Vital Statistics Report indicates that birthrates among fathers aged 35 to 49 increased slightly from 2001 to 2002. Between 1980 and 2002, the rate of births among fathers aged 40 to 44 went up 32%, and for fathers aged 45 to 49, 21%. For men 50 to 54, the increase was 9%.

This mirrors what New York City male fertility expert Marc Goldstein, MD, sees in his practice. "I am seeing more older men waiting longer to get married or who are divorced and remarried, [including] the CEOs who are discarding their last trophy wife for new ones," says Goldstein, a professor of reproductive medicine and urology at Weill Cornell Medical College and the surgeon-in-chief of male reproductive medicine and microsurgery at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. Goldstein's oldest patient was 87.

Setting the Male Biological Clock

While much ado is made about women's fertility declining with advancing age, what about men?

Many men will have no problems conceiving a healthy child, but "there is quite a bit of evidence that advancing age can affect the DNA or genetic material in sperm," Goldstein says. This damage may start as early as age 35 and worsens with age. As a result, older men may father children who have higher rates of schizophrenia and/or Down syndrome, he says.

Additionally, older men may have lower sperm counts. "There is a gradual decrease in sperm, the quality is poorer, and sperm swim less vigorously, so the pregnancy takes longer to achieve," he says.

Still, "the majority of older men with healthy younger wives are able to get pregnant, and most of the time, the babies are normal," he says.

This even holds among men who have had vasectomies in the past and decide to reverse them. A recent study by Goldstein and colleagues found that vasectomy reversal is highly effective, even 15 years or more after the procedure. If a man had a vasectomy this year or 15 years ago, there was no difference in the pregnancy rate achieved following reversal.

That's not to say achieving a pregnancy and fathering a child aren't markedly easier for younger men. "If they decide they want kids, couples should do it sooner rather than later and have the man checked right from the beginning," he suggests. A semen analysis will assess sperm quality and count.

Are 50s the New 30s?

"I think there is a trend toward midlife fatherhood," says Terrence Real, founder of the Relational Recovery Institute in Cambridge, Mass., and author of several books on male emotional health.

"It's pretty clear that men in their 40s are significantly more interested in children than previous generations, and men are somewhat more interested in fatherhood from the 50s on up," Real says.

The reasons are many, he says.

"More men are engaged in second marriages, and there is often an age gap in a second marriage," he says. "If an older man takes a younger wife who does not have kids, there are very good odds he will have children."

In addition, baby boomers are revamping expectations about aging. "Men are thinking that they are in their prime at age 50," he says, adding, that "adolescence keeps getting extended, so it takes longer for men to settle down" as well.

Midlife Crisis?

Men spend decades on the conveyor belt, and now they are assessing where this conveyor belt has taken them, Real explains. If he was fairly successful, he may look around and think, "This is great, but I still feel like something important is missing."