Halle Berry and the risks of pregnancy at an older age

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Halle Berry’s pregnancy is making news, not just because she’s Halle, but because she’s also in her mid-40s.

But, she’s not alone. Fellow celebrity moms Nia Long and Mariah Carey also delivered in their 40s, and recent statistics show women are waiting later to have children in general.

“Some reasons include career aspirations, or they just simply haven’t met the right person yet,” says Renee Volny, an obstetrician and gynecologist.  “There are more and more women of advance maternal age looking into options to conceive.”

The options

Most women of advance maternal age usually opt for assisted reproductive technique (ART) – treatment options to improve conception — in lieu of natural conception. Through ART, births have been reported in women as old as 70 years old.

“It includes in-vitro fertilization, artificial insemination, and ovulation enhancement drugs, which can increase the likelihood to have a viable egg that can be fertilized and carried to full term,” Volny explains.

ART are used at such high rates in this age bracket, because, as women get older, the question of egg viability or egg quality becomes a concern.

“The reason fertility decreases is because egg quality becomes poorer, so even if you’re ovulating, the chances of getting pregnant decreases,” says Volny.

The fertility rate in women in their mid-40’s have less than a five percent chance of conceiving. And when they do, they have a higher rate of multiples – twins, triplets and quadruplets.

Rolling the dice

When a woman waits to conceive, it leaves the door open to complications that could affect not only them but their baby as well.

Complications of pregnancy can happen at any point time, no matter what the woman’s age, Volny says. However with advancing age, the woman can have increased risks of chronic diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and preeclampsia. The risk of miscarriage increases as well.

“More complications would also increase the risk of higher hospitalization rates,” says Volny. “Depending on the complications, they need to have more pre-natal visits so they can be monitored.”

But, it’s not clear exactly why older woman have more of a problem carrying a pregnancy.

“Women get older and their bodies are not as equipped to handle the strain of pregnancy due to other chronic diseases they may have,” Volny says.

Risks for the babies

For the babies, the most publicized complication are chromosome anomalies. The risk of Down Syndrome, for example, increases to one in 400 births by the time women become 40 years of age. After that, the risks increase exponentially.

Down Syndrome is more publicized, however, there are other diseases that babies from older women are at increased risk for, such as cystic fibrosis and Tay-Sachs.

It’s not just the women

Children from men of advanced age are also at high risk of complications.

“There have been some studies that show that children born to men 40 years of age and older have a higher risk of autism and achondroplasia, which is a type of dwarfism,” Volny says.

How to beat the odds

Considering the complications, there are some things that women can do to help improve their odds of not only having a successful pregnancy but a healthy child.

“The reality is to get your body ready before pregnancy not during the pregnancy. That’s the trick to a healthy pregnancy.”

Optimization of health can be done in various ways.

“[Those who are successful] are eating properly, getting the right dietary amount folic acid, taking daily vitamins and minerals, getting control of any chronic diseases they may have, quitting smoking and limiting the amount of alcohol.”

Weight control should also be done to ensuring a healthy pregnancy.

“Obesity can be a factor in infertility as well as stillbirth,” Volny adds. “Moving towards a normal weight will definitely help women optimize their health.”

Regardless of all these increased risks, there is a plus: research suggests that women in this category are better suited financially and emotionally to handle the rigors of pregnancy than younger women.

Dr. Terrance McGill is an aspiring family physician with a passion for writing and increasing health awareness in the community. He recently completed his master’s in public health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.