Older men are more likely than young ones to father a child who develops autism or schizophrenia, because of random mutations that become more numerous with advancing paternal age, scientists reported on Wednesday, in the first study to quantify the effect as it builds each year. The age of mothers had no bearing on the risk for these disorders, the study found.
Experts said that the finding was hardly reason to forgo fatherhood later in life. The overall risk to a man in his 40s or older is in the range of 2 percent, at most, and there are other unknown biological factors.
But the study, published online in the journal Nature, provides support for the argument that the surging rate of autism diagnoses over recent decades is attributable in part to the increasing average age of fathers, which could account for as many as 30 percent of cases.
The findings also counter the long-standing assumption that the age of the mother is the most important factor in determining the odds of a child having developmental problems.
The risk of chromosomal abnormalities, like Down syndrome, increases for older mothers, but when it comes to some complex developmental and psychiatric problems, the lion's share of the genetic risk originates in the sperm, not the egg, the study found.
The new investigation, led by the Icelandic firm deCODE Genetics, analyzed genetic material taken from blood samples of 78 parent-child trios, focusing on families in which parents with no signs of a mental disorder gave birth to a child who developed autism or schizophrenia. This approach allows scientists to isolate brand-new mutations in the genes of the child that were not present in the parents.
"It is absolutely stunning that the father's age accounted for all this added risk, given the possibility of environmental factors and the diversity of the population," said Dr. Kari Stefansson, the chief executive of deCODE and the study's senior author. "And it's stunning that so little is contributed by the age of the mother."
Stefansson and other experts said that an increase in the average age of fathers has most likely led to more cases of autism. Unlike other theories proposed to explain the increase, like vaccinations, it is backed by evidence that scientists agree is solid.