Women live longer than men and the average lifespan of both sexes is increasing. That potentially means more time to raise a family. These days, it’s not unusual to see women in their 40s and even 50s carrying a baby. However, pregnancies that happen past the age of 35 are still high risk. Chances are, you’ll have a healthy pregnancy and delivery, yet your risk of developing complications is higher than that of a younger mom-to-be. What are the risks of being pregnant over 40?
Although most women who have a baby after the age of 40 have an uneventful pregnancy and deliver a healthy baby, your risk of these complications is higher:
- Delivering too early
- Preeclampsia (elevated blood pressures during pregnancy)
- Problems with the placenta
- Gestational diabetes
- Having a C-section
- Delivering a baby with birth defects
The chance of developing one of these complications goes up with age. If you’re pregnant at age 55, your risk of pregnancy-related problems is substantially greater than a woman of 42. If you have pre-existing health problems, like high blood pressure or diabetes, the probability is even higher.
One complication you’re probably familiar with is the possibility of giving birth to a baby with Down’s syndrome, a genetic condition. When a baby has Down’s syndrome, they carry an extra copy of a particular chromosome. Babies born with Down’s syndrome often have characteristic facial features but they are also at risk of other health problems, including heart defects, thyroid disease, problems hearing, visual difficulties, and, sometimes, mental retardation. Down’s babies are also at unusually high risk of developing leukemia. The chance of conceiving a child with Down’s Syndrome if you’re pregnant at age 20 is only about 1 in 10,000. However, the odds go up to 1 in 100 by age 40. Fortunately, you can screen for this complication while you’re pregnant.
Other Health Problems
When you’re pregnant later in life, your chance of dealing with other health issues is higher as well. At this stage in life, your body is more susceptible to developing health issues since it has experienced more “wear and tear.” Sometimes the stress of being pregnant or the hormone changes can “uncover” health issues such as heart problems that you didn’t know you had. If you’re pregnant over 40, you’re also at risk of a condition called peripartum cardiomyopathy. This is a potentially fatal condition where the heart muscle weakens and fluid builds up in the lungs.
The Bottom Line
If you’re pregnant and sporting a few wrinkles, you’re in good company. These days, about 1 in 7 women have a baby after the age of 40. Yet, even if you’re healthy, your body still has less stress tolerance than someone in their 20s. Plus, the egg used to conceive your baby is older as well. If you plan on conceiving in your 40s and beyond, get a thorough health screening beforehand. Make sure your blood pressure, blood sugar, and blood lipids are normal and that you have a healthy heart. Just as importantly, adopt lifestyle habits beforehand, like eating a healthy diet and exercise, that will serve your body well during the long, nine months of pregnancy. Getting pregnant later in life isn’t a decision to take lightly. Be sure to talk to your health care provider beforehand.
Medscape.com. “Obstetrical Management of the Older Gravida”
Health.com. “Babies After 40: The Hidden Health Risks of Mid-Life Pregnancy”