California doctors show that aging need not be a barrier to motherhood. They report postmenopausal women in their 50s and early 60s can deliver healthy babies. The prerequisite is an egg donated by a younger woman. While the study shows late pregnancies are often accompanied by health problems, they can be controlled.
Researchers at the University of Southern California have taken a reproductive technology originally developed for younger women and applied it successfully to several postmenopausal women in the largest study of its kind.
The technique is called in vitro fertilization, where eggs are fertilized with sperm in a laboratory dish and implanted into the uterus. Perfected in the 1970s, this method has made pregnancy possible for many women whose infertility cannot be treated by other means.
The southern California doctors used it in 77 healthy women aged 50 to 63. The women received fertilized eggs from donors under age 33. As the study in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows, 42 of the 77 - more than half - delivered babies. The research leader, physician Richard Paulson, points out that for 26 of the mothers, it was their first child. "We believe that the data are reassuring, and that they provide continued evidence that women over the age of 50 can become pregnant," he said. "In fact, there is no definitive medical reason for excluding these women from attempting pregnancy on the basis of age alone."
Doctor Paulson told a Washington news briefing that most of the deliveries were cesarean. There were no deaths among the mothers or babies, but there were frequent complications during pregnancy. One third of the women had varying degrees of high blood pressure, called pre-eclampsia. One fifth developed diabetes requiring modified diets and in a few cases, insulin injections.
Nevertheless, the work shows that women of grandmotherly age can think about becoming mothers. Dr. Paulson says that if they are appropriately screened, they can conceive using donated eggs and have pregnancy rates similar to those of younger recipients. "We cannot beat the biological clock of the aging egg," said Dr. Paulson. "We are beating the biological clock of pregnancy."