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Is There a Genetic Link Between Older Fathers and Bipolar Disorder in Children?

Helen Jagger

Many bipolar disorder sufferers frequently ask why they’ve developed the condition, and are keen to understand where the condition came from and how they were chosen to be affected by it. Knowledge is power, and the more knowledge that you have about your condition, the easier  many people find it to cope with. Whilst there is no point in blame, and no real benefits of it, many find knowledge to be useful and soothing. With this in mind, one theory about the condition is that there is a genetic link between older fathers and the prevalence of bipolar disorder in children: it could be that if you have an older father then a genetic sperm mutation is one of the reasons that you went on to develop bipolar disorder.

Extensive Research Conducted

A joint study, conducted by both American and Swedish researchers, found that men who fathered children after the age of 24 faced slightly increased risks of siring a child that experienced psychiatric problems or academic difficulties whilst men who fathered children over the age of 45 saw that risk increase again: the children of these older fathers actually saw a 25 times larger risk of bipolar disorder and 13 times greater risk of developing ADHD when compared to the children involved in the study that had the youngest fathers. It is thought that the cause for this is sperm mutations as the sperm ages: it was previously believed that male sperm was timeless. And whilst it is true that mean can conceive children at any age (so is ‘ageless’ from the point of view of conception) it has now been revealed that the quality of the sperm does decline with age.

This is not the only study of this kind, although it is the only study to specifically include bipolar disorder within its research parameters. Further research, conducted by teams in Iceland, also supports the view that sperm quality declines with age, increasing the prevalence of suffering from mental health problems. Whilst this study primarily focused on the development of schizophrenia and autism, it found that with each passing year that they delayed fatherhood (ie with each year that their sperm was aged) a man was predicted to pass on two new genetic mutations when they were born. When all of the children involved in the study were fully analysed,  97 percent of new mutations found to be passed on to the children could be related to their having an older father.

Other Factors Involved

Parental age is not the only factor thought to contribute to the development of bipolar disorder, although it is the newest theory to be posed about the condition to the medical world. Other factors thought to contribute to the development of bipolar disorder include having a parent who also has the condition, suffering from health problems, and also having an inbalance in your brain chemicals: individuals who suffer from a wide range of mental health problems quite often tend to have abnormal levels of serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine in their brain chemical make-up. Parental age, therefore, should not be held solely responsible for the development of bipolar disorder, although it is an interesting study topic with warrants further research.

Whilst it is not possible to go back and change your father’s age when you were conceived or any of the other factors that may have led to your development of the condition, nor is it possible to use this knowledge to reverse your development of bipolar disorder, many sufferers of bipolar disorder find it comforting to know that their development of the condition was not ‘caused’ by them, or by anything they did wrong. Sufferers of bipolar disorder can and do live full and happy lives: starting families of their own and having fulfilling careers.