In her New Republic essay "How older parenthood will uppend American society," Judith Shulevitz outlines the health risks of older parenting and the implications of falling fertility rates for an aging population. Shulevitz's story has sparked commentary from prominent feminist writers including Katie Roiphe, Hanna Rosin along with Ross Douthat and Parade magazine.
But according to Philip Cohen, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, Shulevitz arguments don't add up. In an essay for the Atlantic, Cohen argues that "the overall consequences of the trend toward older parenting are on balance positive, both for women's equality and for children's health." Furthermore, he asserts the biggest risk for the health of pregnant women and their children is not age, but lower socio-economic class and the mother's own health problems.
Advancing his assertions, Cohen cites data from the Centers for Disease Control which show infant mortality by the mother's age at birth. Infant mortality rates for women who are less than 20 at the time of their child's birth are actually highest at 9.8 deaths per 1,000 births. Infants born to mothers over 40 years old have a death rate of 8.0 while children born to mothers between the ages of 30 and 34 have the best outcomes with a death rate of 5.3.
Cohen also examines the rates of cognitive disability for children ages 5-11 by mother's age and education. He finds that the disability rate is lowest for children born to parents in their late twenties and early thirties. His data shows that 3.9 percent of children born to women between the ages of 40 and 44 have cognitive disabilities. If their mothers have a bachelors degree, that rate goes down to 2.5 percent. Children born to mothers over the age of 44 have a disability rate of 5.7 percent. Children born to mothers in this age group who have have a college degree's, however, have a disability rate of just 3.7 percent.
"Why is the rate of cognitive disabilities so much higher for the children of older mothers who did not finish college?" asks Cohen.
His theory: "It's not because of their biological clocks or genetic mutations, but because of the health of the women giving birth."
"Women without college degrees still make up more than half of those having babies after age 35, and the risks their children face have more to do with high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, and other health conditions than with genetic or epigenetic mutations. Preterm births, low birth-weight and birth complications are major causes of developmental disabilities, and they occur most often among mothers with their own health problems," he wrote.
Perhaps most distressing is that the the effects of inequality on children's health appear to be increasing. A study published in Pediatrics found that although infant mortality rates have gone down, substantial socioeconomic disparities exist in both neonatal and post neonatal mortality. Between 1986 and 2001 the rate of infant mortality for children born to low income women increased, which according to the authors of the study, suggests "increasing polarization among socioeconomic groups in material and social conditions, smoking during pregnancy, and health care services."
Concluding his essay, Cohen argues, "When it comes to parents' age versus social class, the challenges are not either/or. We should be concerned about both. But addressing the health problems of parents — especially mothers — with less than a college degree and below-average incomes is the more pressing issue — both for potential lives saved or improved and for social equality."