WASHINGTON — Paternal age at conception, particularly if a father was very young or much older, affects social development in children, a new study finds.
Researchers at the the Seaver Autism Center for Research and Treatment at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine analyzed data from a sample of 15,000 twins followed from age four through 16 in the United Kingdom. They looked for differences in the development of social skills and other behaviors, including conflicts with peers, hyperactivity, emotionality, and general conduct.
They also conducted tests to determine if the effects of paternal age on the children’s development was primarily genetic or environmental.
Surprisingly, the root causes of the difference in social development in children seemed to be more genetic than the social environment the child grows up in, according to Dr. Magdalena Janecka, a fellow at the Seaver Autism Center.
Dr. Jenecka explains in a media release that their results indicated that children born to very young or older fathers found some social situations more daunting, “even if they do not meet the diagnostic criteria for autism.”
More specifically, the researchers found that children born to fathers below the age of 25 and over the age of 51 exhibited pro-social behaviors in early stages of development, but by adolescence, their social behaviors weren’t as advanced as their peers.
The genetic effects on social development increased as the age of the father increased.
“Further increased importance of genetic factors observed in the offspring of older, but not very young fathers, suggests that there could be different mechanisms behind the effects at these two extremes of paternal age,” says Jenecka. “Although the resulting behavioral profiles in their offspring were similar, the causes could be vastly different.”
Dr. Jenecka added that further investigation of the development of neural structures in relation to paternal age may help shed light on conditions such as autism and schizophrenia.
“Those developmental differences, if confirmed, are likely traceable to alterations in brain maturation,” she says.
The study’s findings were published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.