The Cougar Phenomenon: Science Is On Your Side Older Ladies (Apparently)

I came across something the other day called The Cougar Phenomenon. It was basically answering the question why older women should choose young lovers? It was written in such an important and breathless fashion it would have to be the question on everyone’s lips. Well it is, isn’t it?

It was quoting research, which is always a good sign if you are looking to go up a notch in the credibility stakes. Women in their 40s, should look for younger partners to boost their chances of becoming pregnant, according to a group of academics at Gill University in Canada. I guess it’s yet another example of Canadian researchers, coming up with creative ways to spend their research grants or have a lot of time on their hands or both.

Anyway, I’ll park the cynicism for the time being and get to the point.

Would be mothers in their 40s, will struggle to have children with male partners the same age. There might be no such thing as male menopause but that doesn’t mean the biological clock isn’t ticking for blokes. Gill University researchers say the fertility clock stops for men at the age of 43. According to their study, a man’s age is maybe just as important as it is for a woman when they both reach their 40s and want to conceive.

It upends previous thinking on this because it was said that men could go on fathering children indefinitely because they are continuously producing new sperm in contrast to women who have the same eggs from birth. But scientists are starting to believe and see evidence of mutations creeping into sperm over time, which affects male fertility. As if men didn’t have enough to worry about.

One of main Gill University researchers told a fertility conference in Hawaii that the findings were “astounding.” There’s no such thing as understatement at Gill University.

He said it was previously thought that young women could always “fix” any defects in genetic material in sperm but once she hit the naughty forties forget it. The lead researcher went on to say that this gives a biological argument to the cougar phenomenon of an older woman selecting a younger male partner. This was the first study of its type to look at this in a scientific way.

The researchers studied women aged between 40 and 46 who undertook 904 IVF cycles between 2010 and 2012. In couples where the male was 43 or older, no children were born. But older women with younger partners went on to conceive babies.

The news just keeps on getting worse for older would be fathers. Previous studies have shown the children fathered by men over 55, are at greater risk of autism, bipolar disorder, low IQ and schizophrenia.

But the new research suggests that even in their early forties, men are already beginning to lose their fertility.

According to the Gill University researchers for a 37 or 36-year-old woman, the man’s age is not such a factor. But once she hits 40, a woman’s reproduction undergoes changes and when those changes occur the age of her male partner becomes a factor.

The reality is that most men are probably with women of a similar age, so as the woman gets older, so does her partner. But when they both reach 40, the scientific evidence suggests the biological clock in the man contributes to his ability, make that inability, to produce children.

Over the past 40 years the average age for bearing children in the UK, and pretty much everywhere else in the world, has been steadily increasing for men and women. According to the UK Office for National Statistics, the average woman gives birth just a week short of her 30th birthday while first time mothers are also older, at just over 28. The average age of a father is now 32 years and six months.

Women are born with all their eggs, but male sperm is constantly replicating. Each time, a single sperm replicates, there is a chance for mutation in the DNA to occur. As men age, they are also exposed to numerous environmental toxins over time which have been shown to cause DNA mutations in sperm. Molecular genetic studies have shown that the sperm of older men have far more mutations than those of younger men.

Professor Dagan Wells, a leading fertility expert at Oxford University backed the Canadian findings saying that older women may find it easier to get pregnant with a younger man.

“We know that the DNA in the sperm of older men suffers a loss of integrity. The DNA should be a nice long uninterrupted molecule but in older men it breaks up into little bits. The egg is rich in enzymes which repairs DNA damage but it could be that (as women age) that the egg is getting more challenged. There might be a tipping point,” he said.

What about older men who manage to have children with much younger partners? Surely that is a sign they still have what it takes? Not according to these scientists. Men who become fathers in their 50s or 60s are not more virile, they are just more likely to have a younger partner whose egg has repaired their mutated sperm.

And just to complete the humiliation for older guys, Professor Charles Kingsland, consultant gynecologist at Liverpool Womens’ NHS Foundation Trust, added: “There are biological reasons why an older woman would benefit from a younger man. Not only are male sperm likely to be healthier but women live a lot longer.”

Ouch.

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