Former research has suggested that having an older father may put children at risk of serious health conditions, but a new study shows that sons of older dads may also have some intellectual and educational advantages.
Previous studies have shown that advanced paternal age at the time of conception puts the offspring at risk of several neuropsychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
But new research suggests that there are also considerable advantages to having an older dad.
Researchers from King's College London in the United Kingdom, in collaboration with scientists from the Seaver Autism Center for Research and Treatment at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, NY, set out to examine the effects of paternal age on certain psychological traits of the sons.
The researchers put together a so-called geek index, comprising three main characteristics: high intelligence, strong focus on intellectual interests, and "social aloofness."
Although these traits are widely spread across the population, the authors note, ethnographic literature groups them under the umbrella-term "geek."
The researchers hypothesized that "geekiness" would correlate with "educational success," and that having an older father would bring such an advantage.
Better academic performance
First author Dr. Magdalena Janecka and team examined data from The Twins Early Development Study (TEDS), which is a large-scale study of how genes and the environment interact to influence human development.
The TEDS provided the researchers with data on the behavior and cognition of more than 15,000 pairs of twins living in the U.K.
At the age of 12, children enrolled in the TEDS took tests that measured their "geekiness." Their parents also answered questions about the children's interests, whether they spent most of their time being focused on one activity, and whether or not they cared about spending time with their peers and fitting in.
The children's answers were turned into a score on the geek index.
Overall, the researchers found that higher geek scores were found in the sons of older dads. Additionally, higher geek index scores correlated strongly with future academic success.
"Geeky" children tended to perform better in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, years after they were tested using the geek index.
Dr. Janecka and colleagues adjusted for the parents' qualifications, as well as for their socioeconomic and employment status, but the correlations persisted.
"Our study suggests that there may be some benefits associated with having an older father. We have known for a while about the negative consequences of advanced paternal age, but now we have shown that these children may also go on to have better educational and career prospects."
Dr. Magdalena Janecka
The authors hypothesize that some of the genes found to correlate with geekiness may be the same as those for ASD. These genes may be more prevalent in older fathers.
"When the child is born only with some of those genes, they may be more likely to succeed in school. However, with a higher 'dose' of these genes, and when there are other contributing risk factors, they may end up with a higher predisposition for autism."
"This is supported by recent research showing that genes for autism are also linked with higher IQ," Dr. Janecka concludes.