March 9 (HealthDay News) -- Men who put off becoming dads till later in life may pay a price: slightly lowered intelligence in their offspring.
That's the conclusion of an Australian study that found that kids born to older men underperformed on intelligence and cognitive tests from infancy to 7 years of age, compared with children of younger fathers.
But on the other hand, children born to older mothers scored higher on the same tests, the team said.
"The biological clock ticks for men, too," concluded Dr. Mary Cannon, an associate professor of psychiatry at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, Ireland, and the author of an accompanying editorial in the March issue of the online journal PLoS Medicine.
"There are risks associated with delaying fatherhood," she said. "These risks may be subtle, such as a decrement of three to six points on childhood IQ tests, but can also be significant, as in the increased risks of serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia and autism."
One reason may be that men's sperm change as they age, the Australian researchers suggested.
"We suspect that more mutations accumulate in sperm as the dads age," said Dr. John McGrath, from the Queensland Brain Institute at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, and the study's lead researcher. "These mutations may cause subtle changes in the way the brain develops. But other social factors are involved also."
For the study, McGrath's team collected data on more than 33,000 American children born between 1959 and 1965. The data, which came from the U.S. Collaborative Perinatal Project, included the children's cognitive test results at the ages of 8 months, 4 years and 7 years. The tests included assessments of sensory discrimination and hand-eye coordination, conceptual and physical coordination and, at age 7, reading, spelling and arithmetic skills.
In addition, the researchers took into account socioeconomic factors, including family income.
They found that the older the father, the more likely the child was to have lower scores on all tests except the test for physical coordination. For example, in one model, children born to 20-year-old men scored an average of 106.8 points on a standard IQ test, whereas kids born to 50-year-old men scored 100.7 points, on average.
The researchers also evaluated the children based on their mother's age. They found that the older the mother, the higher the kids' scores on the cognitive tests.
The findings suggest that "we need to worry about age of fatherhood as well as age of motherhood," McGrath said. "We need to work out what underlies this association."
Other research has suggested that the children of older mothers might do better because they experience a more nurturing, attentive home environment, but children of older fathers may not necessarily experience the same benefit.
McGrath's group also speculated that genetics and social factors might play a role in the findings. They point out that a woman's eggs are formed before birth, so DNA may stay relatively stable. But sperm is produced over a man's lifetime. Studies suggest that sperm may gain mutations as men grow older, the researchers said.
"Increased age at fatherhood has potentially significant effects on both the medical and psychological/intellectual outcomes for children," Cannon said. "There has been a great deal of emphasis for many decades on the risks associated with increasing age at motherhood, but men somehow have the impression that fatherhood can be delayed with no ill effects on offspring. It may be time to redress this balance in the minds of the public."
SOURCES: John McGrath, M.D., Ph.D., Queensland Brain Institute, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia; Mary Cannon, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Dublin; March 2009, PLoS Medicine, online