Older Fathers, Schizophrenic Children. Part 2

Statistically, a child fathered by a man older than age 40 has a one in 200 chance of having a genetic abnormality — not just schizophrenia. Consider this: While men make sperm throughout their lifetime, the older the man is the more gene mutations (or changes in the DNA code) there may be in his sperm because the sperm producing cells have had to duplicate so many times. For example, sperm producing cells replicate every 16 days. This means a man has about 200 cell divisions by the time he reaches age 20 and about 660 by age 40.

“These mutations may range from minor, almost undetectable, to great — with chunks missing from the DNA code,” says Susan J. Gross, M.D. associate professor and co-director of the division of reproductive genetics at Montefiore Medical Center’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, N.Y.

“Although our bodies have repair mechanisms that act almost like proofreaders to fix these mistakes, we run into problems or get sick when there’s a mistake or breakdown in that repair mechanism,” she says.

“There’s not a lot we know about aging,” she adds. “So we don’t know if mistakes are made by sheer probability — the more cells men produce the greater the likelihood of a mistake — or whether the repair mechanism simply doesn’t work as well as a man ages.”

It really isn’t news that genetic mutations (or changes in the DNA code) that can cause health risks are produced by the father. The scientific community has known this for years. It just hasn’t been common knowledge.

And the new information presented by Malaspina’s work doesn’t suggest that the advanced age of fathers is the only cause of schizophrenia but one of several possible contributing factors. Researchers know that genetics aren’t always responsible for schizophrenia based on their studies of identical twins. Research has demonstrated that even if one twin has schizophrenia, the other twin will develop it in only about 50 percent of the time. Other non-genetic factors that could contribute to the susceptibility to schizophrenia, researchers agree, could include head injury, complications or illnesses during the mother’s pregnancy or the baby’s delivery — or even environmental toxins.

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