Older Dads on the Campaign Trail

Many older dads report that they are more devoted to their children than their younger counterparts. But they also face substantial health risks.
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As ABC News has recently observed, the presidential campaign features a pair of older dads, one on each side of the aisle.

On the left, it's Sen. Christopher Dodd, 63, who has two daughters, age 6 and 2, with his second wife Jackie Clegg Dodd. And on the right, Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, 65, has two toddlers with his second wife, Jeri Kehn.

What exactly do we read in these tea leaves? First, that these two candidates mirror a demographic trend. Older fathers are on the rise. That's not too surprising. But here's the rub: the children of older fathers face particularly high risks of schizophrenia and autism.

According to a government study of birth certificates, the number of kids born to men 40-49 nearly tripled between 1980 and 2004.

That's not just because the population has grown and there are more older men than there were two decades ago. Birth rates are also up among men in their 40s, too. More older men are having children at a greater rate.

Dodd, who did not have children from his first marriage, told ABC News reporter Susan Donaldson James that he was a "late bloomer." He said his interest in children led him to propose several pieces of legislation, including the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Thompson has said he was "blessed later in life," and he told James that his two children "are a large part of why I'm running for president of the United States."

It's nice to hear this interest coming from older men, career men -- men campaigning for one of the most demanding jobs in the world. One hopes they will have time for their young children on the campaign trail and perhaps in the White House, although the odds that either one will get the keys to the presidential mansion are slim.

Many older dads, and their younger wives, report that older dads are more attentive than their younger counterparts, more devoted to their children, and, in many cases, more able to spend time with them, because they're not scrambling to assemble careers and secure promotions, as many younger dads are. So the children of older dads could have a better-than-average chance of growing up in a nurturing home, with devoted, doting parents.

But they also face substantial health risks. It seems that fathers, like mothers, have a biological clock. Unlike women's eggs -- which are stored in a woman's ovaries from before her birth -- sperm don't age. They're manufactured every time they are needed.

Until recently, the assumption was that an older man's sperm were identical to those of a younger man. One thing was overlooked, however: the sperm-making machinery. It ages, and when it does, it begins to produce an inferior product.

A recent study done on a database of Israeli soldiers found that children of men who were 40 or older had a nearly six-fold increase in risk of autism, compared to the children of younger dads. And the children of the older fathers had double the risk of schizophrenia.

Autism is usually diagnosed around age 3, and schizophrenia in the early 20s. So Dodd and Thompson have a long time to wait before they know whether their children are affected.

Perhaps the two of them should become advocates for more research on mental illness and developmental disorders, for better health care for mental illness, and for more research on the basic biology of reproduction.

It would be prudent planning for them, personally. And it would be good news for all the rest of us.