Act your age
The New York Times reported a study released by the journal Autism Research earlier this week suggesting that older mothers are more likely to have an autistic child and older fathers also increase the risk when his partner is under 30.
The research was conducted on five million births in California during the 1990s, with 12,159 of those children receiving an autism diagnosis. Fathers 40 or older who had children with mothers 30 or younger increased the risk of having an autistic child by 59%.
The new study may challenge previous research that linked a higher rate of autism with advancing paternal age, but not with advancing maternal age. However, the authors said that alone doesn’t account for the sevenfold rise in autism cases in the 1990s.
Studies are notoriously long, tedious and often can’t account for every variable due to lack of resources, and even though the results may bring new answers for the causes of autism, most in the know about the disability are aware of the hasty increase of autism diagnoses in the last decade. However, since we’re only a month and a half into the new decade, it’s unlikely we’ll know about any changes that took place from 2000-2009 for some time. When published, studies will often note potential fallacies of the published findings and/or list the methods used to obtain them, so other studies on the same topic can use them as a reference. Studies have a similar structure to film and TV documentaries; they’re not meant to be an end-point to specific issues, but another piece to solve a very long puzzle.
One such drawback is the sample size. While over 12,000 California newborns were examined in the study, that leaves out 49 states. It’s safe to say autism increased in those states and there’s enough to theorize that similar increases regarding autism and parental age happened at other states, but at what levels?
The story isn’t getting much buzz outside The New York Times. Super Bowl XLIV is a likely culprit, with reports on its record-breaking ratings (passing the M*A*S*H* finale as the most-watched TV program in history). Another could involve the nature of media coverage itself. Local, national and 24-hour cable news often blitzkrieg major headlines throughout the day, but don’t offer many updates in a 24-hour period. Seeing the effects of swine flu saturating airwaves last spring, avian flu a few years ago, and the endless amount of information coming in after 9/11, we should consider ourselves lucky. In situations that threaten security, the reaction from the herd is often panic, and hyping the finding of the study may only add another fear about having a child.
I believe the lack of attention to the new study is caused more by other big news stories than a conscientious decision by news producers to avoid overloading consumers; we’ve seen little change from news outlets to suggest they’ll handle the news more intellectually this decade than they did in the previous one.