One of the problems with aging, at least for women, is their proverbial biological clock. If you want to get pregnant, you really do need to pay attention to it.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
Many women deflate when they learn that at age 35 or older, they’re considered elderly, at least in reproductive terms.
“Advanced maternal age is really a misnomer,” says maternal fetal medicine specialist Abdelaziz Saleh, MD. “In my opinion, the term is very insensitive. It leads to the thought, ‘Ow! Am I too old?’ If the woman isn’t overweight, eats right, maintains a healthy lifestyle and follows her doctor’s recommendations, it’s likely she won’t have any issues in her pregnancy.”
Age-related pregnancy risks
As a medical diagnosis, advanced maternal age serves as a heads up for healthcare professionals. It simply means the woman is 35 or older, which could make getting pregnant problematic. Or, if she is already pregnant, she or her baby might be more prone to certain risks.
[Tweet “Reproductively, age 35+ is advanced maternal age. Learn the risks. #maternalfetal”]As a woman ages beyond 35, the risks of various health conditions and birth defects increase for her unborn baby. Among these conditions are:
- Chromosomal abnormalities – The most common one is Down syndrome, a birth defect that results from an extra chromosome. At 25, a woman’s chance of having a baby with Down syndrome is 1 in 1,250. At age 35, her risk increases to a 1-in-400 chance. By age 40, the risk is 1 in 100.
- Pregnancy-related complications – Older moms may experience blood-related conditions, such as preeclampsia and gestational diabetes, which can harm the mother and baby. Age also increases the threat of miscarriages and stillbirths.
- Genetic predisposition — Sometimes, a woman’s family or health history may lead to birth defects and disorders in the baby. The same holds true for the baby’s father. As people age, they’re more susceptible to chronic illnesses, which is a problem that may affect their developing baby.
Living with the label
Nicole Herbst, now 40, and her husband, Rob, knew their age could be a factor, but they wanted a baby.
“I knew that medically and scientifically I was considered ‘advanced maternal age,’ but I tried not to let it define me,” she says.
Herbst hoped her lifestyle would counteract her risks.
“I don’t smoke. I exercise and I’m a vegetarian,” she says. “Still, it scared me knowing that as I aged, my egg quality went down, and that this, plus my age, might create risks for my baby.”
Developing a plan
Although Nicole’s pregnancy was not considered high-risk, one way a woman can lessen her anxiety and reduce her risks is by consulting with a maternal-fetal medicine specialist before she even conceives. Maternal-fetal medicine focuses on high-risk pregnancies, whether that impacts the mother, the baby, or both of them.
“We can design her treatments to fit her situation,” says Dr. Saleh. In addition to tracking personal and family histories, this might include ultrasounds, blood tests, and other options to ensure mom and baby are doing well throughout the pregnancy.
That plan worked for the Herbsts. After four years of trying to conceive, the Herbsts welcomed a baby girl in March, 2014. She was born at Fairview Hospital.