Nature, until now, has been unfair. Men have always been able to continue to reproduce until death, but women’s fertility screeches to a halt mid-life.
But despite this it is now quite normal to be a first time mother at forty. The proportion of first births to women 35+ has increased eightfold since 1970. The oldest recorded natural mother gave birth at 59 in the UK in 2007.
As life expectancy continues to increase, women will want to continue to have children into their forties and beyond. Currently most women’s eggs have run out by the time they are fifty, and any births after that are almost always either from donor eggs, or from ovarian tissue transplant from tissue frozen earlier because of cancer treatment. There have been at the very least raised eyebrows and some virulent condemnations of the few cases of sixty and seventy year old mothers (from donor eggs) who were, according to the critics, unlikely to live long enough to bring up their children. Indeed this was the case of Maria del Carmen Bousada who had twin boys at sixty-six and died two years later of stomach cancer. However, had she lived as long as her mother (101), tongues would not have wagged quite so much.
Increased life expectancy can often mean new relationships and the desire to have children with later partners; donor eggs, even if IVF were allowed in all countries at any age (and it’s not), are not the solution for most women, especially those with biological children already.
Artificial techniques such as freezing eggs and embryos have not been proven to be safe because of the possible damage done by the formation of ice crystals. As research into adult stem cells continues perhaps there will soon be a way to create new eggs from any cell.
Despite the fact more people are living longer, the age of menopause has not changed. Reversing the menopause has been shown to be possible with human growth hormone, but as yet it is not known whether mindfulness techniques and combating social conditioning has any effect on the age of menopause. The word certainly produces anxiety in women, since they fear it signifies the end of their sexual desirability – delaying menopause would therefore mean the ability to continue to look young and fresh for longer. A team led by biologist Rama Singh at McMaster’s Dept of biology has concluded menopause only occurs because men select younger women, rendering menstruation pointless in older women. It is true that few other species manifest menopause, and the prevailing theory until now has been that menopause occurs to allow grandmothers to help their daughters rear more children in quick succession. However, Singh disagrees, claiming that, “If there were no preference against older women, we would be reproducing like men throughout life.” Men therefore are to blame for the menopause she claims. If women had historically been the ones to select younger mates, the situation would have been reversed, with men losing fertility. Longevity is not inherited by gender, so women continue to live past their fertility because men remain fertile – and therefore useful to Nature – throughout their lives.
Without the spectre of the menopause, women could finally relax about finding a partner quickly. It would be hugely beneficial for human relationships (many of us are fifty before we understand what the hell’s been going on). The pressure would be off, and personal issues and decisions about who we really want to have children with and whether we want them at all could be worked through without the horrible sound of the biological clock ticking away. Epigenetic changes due to lifestyle would have more time to benefit later generations. Big differences in age between siblings, and family members who only share one parent might seem irresponsible, but the nuclear family is a recent phenomenon. In the 19th century, when average life expectancy was less than fifty, remarriage was common. Imagine a world where women would no longer have to fear breaking a bone due to osteoporosis, or where the career/motherhood dilemma was finally resolved.
The hive mind objection to anyone looking to extend youth – that it is cheating Nature, that it is weird and selfish – is never voiced more loudly than when it comes to reproduction. However, wisdom and maturity often produce better mothers, and those practising life extension may have spiritual and health perspectives that can only be beneficial to their children. Moreover, the onset of health problems that can accompany the menopause means it is in the interests of society to investigate whether it is time to explore ways of combating this old trick of Nature. If people are remaining healthier for longer older parents will no longer suffer from the disadvantage of being less energetic. Seventy year old mothers may sound grisly to most, but in a world where life will soon be extended to 120, or even 150 for more than the odd outlier, it will perhaps not be quite so peculiar. If the fifty year olds of today are like the thirty year olds of yesteryear, there is nothing to say the seventy and eighty year olds of tomorrow – those who practice staying ageless – will be like the forty year olds of today. Some already are.
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