In the past, mothers who gave birth after the age of 35 were few and far between, yet today about two out of ten women carry out these so-called geriatric pregnancies. With a general change in attitudes toward women’s roles in society and more choices than ever available to modern mothers, the pregnancies of more mature women are moving toward the mainstream.
A geriatric pregnancy is defined as one where the mother is 35 years old or older. Fertility decreases with age, meaning that a woman will be less easily able to become pregnant as the years go by. Additionally, fertility treatments to help the process along become less effective once a woman reaches around 35 years old. A healthy 30-year-old woman, for example, has about a 20 percent chance of getting pregnant each month. By the time she is 40, that percentage plummets to 5 percent.
A generation ago and beforehand, the question of geriatric pregnancies was much less prevalent than it is today, partly because of the less easy availability of contraception. This is also largely due to the societal role that most women were expected to play as homemakers and child bearers, with fewer career opportunities and responsibilities outside of the home. In the 1970s, many “geriatric” mothers who gave birth were considered out of the ordinary and were even described as “elderly” mothers.
These days, an estimated 20 percent of women hold off until after the age of 35 to have children, relishing their careers and other aspects of their lives before settling down and starting a family. A significant shift in attitudes towards modern motherhood has made this procrastination much more common, resulting in higher numbers of geriatric pregnancies. Indeed, many high-profile figures including Madonna, Halle Berry and wife of the former British Prime Minister Cherie Blair have all had pregnancies during their 40s, reinforcing social acceptance of late-blooming mothers.
Geriatric pregnancies are more likely to be problematic than pregnancies where the mother is 34 or younger, due to the age of the mother‘s eggs. Possible complications associated with geriatric pregnancies include miscarriages, chromosomal abnormalities in the child and a higher risk of conditions such as Down’s syndrome. However, there are tests that can be carried out to screen for abnormalities in the fetus.
In a BBC News article, gynecologist Dr. Peter Bowen-Simpkins encouraged women to have babies before the age of 35 and certainly before the age of 40, if possible. Doing so relieves the pressure of declining fertility and the need to undergo fetal abnormality tests, he noted.