Is 50 the new 40 when it comes to having babies?

It is as safe to give birth over 50 as it is over 40, finds a new study.
It is as safe to give birth over 50 as it is over 40, finds a new study. Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

It is as safe to give birth over 50 as it is over 40, for mums and their babies. That's the conclusion of a large study presented recently at the Society for Maternal and Fetal Medicine 39th Annual Pregnancy Meeting in Las Vegas.

Researchers from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Soroka University Medical Centre, examined complications of pregnancies in women over 50. Were older mums and their babies at an increased risk compared to younger mums?

To answer this question, the team looked at 242,771 deliveries at Soroka. Of these births, 68 were women aged 50. Around half fell pregnant through fertilisation while some conceived naturally. There were 558 women aged 45-50, 7,321 between 40 and 44 and 240,000 under the age of 40. 

The study focused on a range of complications including gestational diabetes, premature birth, hypertension and caesarean sections and whether babies suffered from "poor physical condition, mortality or distress" during labour.

And the results were surprising. 

While all complications were higher among women over 40 who gave birth compared to younger mothers, the risks were no higher to mums over the age of 50 than those who gave birth between 40 and 50.

"It turns out that 50 is the new 40 when it comes to childbirth," said lead author Dr Eyal Sheiner. "There is no doubt that medical teams will need to handle increasing numbers of birth for women over age 50."

That said, according to Dr Sheiner, pregnancies of women over the age of 40 should still be considered "high risk". And that's even more the case for those over 50.  "But it turns out that the risk is not much higher as the woman gets older," he said.

Hillary Rorison, Midwifery Advisor at the Australian College of Midwives, notes that it's important women don't interpret this research as saying that having a baby after 50 is without risk.

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"It's unwise to say no there's no health consequences," she says, adding that what the research actually shows is that the risk of complications for women over 50 is the same as complications for mums 40 and over. "It falls within that same risk category, "Mrs Rorison says, adding that we know there's an increased risk for women in this group.

But she also explains that age itself "isn't the defining feature" and other factors such as hypertension or being overweight can also lead to complications.

 "We completely support women who are over the age of 40 if they want to fall pregnant, whether that's naturally or through assisted fertility," Mrs Rorison says. "But they need to be aware that they're more likely to be high risk in general or more likely to be treated as such."

And it's crucial that women are given all the evidence and information so they can make an informed decision. 

"There's a responsibility of those providing these services or giving women recommendations about pregnancy after 40 or 50 to share all the information on the risks and the benefits so women can go forward with their eyes open and not have surprises," Mrs Rorison says.

A 2017 Australian study, published in the Australian & New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology,  found that rather than age, it was underlying medical conditions that mattered when it came to pregnancy outcomes.  Conducted by University of Sydney Professor Jonathan Morris, the researchers analysed 117,357 pregnancies of 99,375 women aged over 35 from NSW birth records from 2006 to 2012. The age of mums ranged from 35 to 56.

"What this work has done for the first time is looked at things other than age," Professor Morris said at the time. "When you examine the contribution of age compared with medical conditions or what's happened in your pregnancies before - those characteristics are far more important than age."

Last year, figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed that women are having children later than ever. While the fertility rate of Aussie women aged 35 years and over continues to rise, however, the rate was falling in most other age groups.

"The long-term decline in fertility of younger mums as well as the continued increase in fertility of older mums reflects a shift towards late childbearing," said ABS Director of Demography, Anthony Grubb, at the time. "Together, this has resulted in a rise in median age of mothers and a fall in Australia's total fertility rate."

In 2016, a Tasmanian woman became the oldest mother to give birth at the age of 62. The woman and her 78-year-old partner reportedly conceived through IVF overseas, using a donor embryo.

And in 2011, a 51-year-old Gold Coast woman gave birth, believed to be Australia's oldest "natural" first-time mother.