Pop star Janet Jackson gave birth to her first child last week.
Normally, that would be simple celebrity news. Except for the fact that Jackson is 50 years old.
According to People magazine, the delivery was stress-free and both mother and son are doing well.
Jackson is part of a growing trend of women waiting well past their 30s to start a family.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the average age of a woman giving birth to her first child has been rising for four decades.
The 2013 Vital Statistics Reports show there were 677 births to women 50 or older. That’s up from 600 the year before.
No pregnancy is risk free. But it can be more challenging once a woman reaches age 35.
Health risks at 50
Dr. Gerardo Bustillo, OB-GYN at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in California, spoke to Healthline about the challenges of pregnancy at age 50.
It starts with getting pregnant.
“Fertility starts to decline starting in a woman’s mid 30s,” said Bustillo. “The definition of infertility is trying to get pregnant for one year without success. For women over 35, we recommend coming in after trying for six months.”
Bustillo said there are several risks associated with older women carrying a pregnancy.
He noted that older moms are more likely to have multiples, even without using in vitro fertilization (IVF).
There’s a higher risk of ectopic pregnancy, placenta previa, placenta abruption, and spontaneous miscarriage.
There’s also an elevated risk of gestational diabetes and hypertension, which can lead to toxemia, preeclampsia, and eclampsia.
“If a mom is older going into pregnancy, there’s a higher chance some of these issues are preexisting. That makes her more likely to have a complication of pregnancy,” explained Bustillo.
“There’s a higher risk of preterm labor and delivery, stillbirths, and cesarean deliveries for various reasons,” he continued. “The baby is at higher risk of complications due to prematurity, chromosome abnormalities, and congenital abnormalities.”
Bustillo said these risks are the same for first-time mothers or those who’ve had other pregnancies. But if you’ve had problems like gestational diabetes or hypertension in previous pregnancies, there’s a good chance you’ll have them again.
Is it safe to get pregnant?
“Some 50-year-olds (male or female) are healthier than some 20-year-olds,” said Samir E. Hage, D.O., F.A.C.O.O.G., of Redlands Community Hospital in California.
“With that in mind, a healthy 50-year-old can potentially have a ‘relatively’ normal pregnancy,” he told Healthline.
Hage cautioned that at 50, the body is not like one at 20.
“When you add the physiological changes of pregnancy at age 50, more complications can occur for both the mother and the baby. For the mother, conditions that may not be so bad while not pregnant can be exacerbated tremendously during pregnancy, and place mom and baby at risk,” he said.
Hage added that maternal mortality rises with age. Certain complications of pregnancy can also lead to long-term health concerns. He suggests that mothers can reduce some of those risks through lifestyle.
Assisted reproduction can also be stressful to the body, he noted.
“A healthy lifestyle at an early age is the key,” said Hage. “Especially if they are considering putting off childbearing until later in life.”
Dr. Kathryn J. Shaw is the division director for Maternal-Fetal Medicine at White Memorial Medical Center in Los Angeles. In an email to Healthline, she offered some advice to prospective moms.
“Although it is true that many women are delaying childbearing, it is very important that women do sit down with the physician — primary care or OB-GYN — to discuss the risks and other concerns before conceiving,” she said. “In some cases — over the age of 45 for sure — referral to an infertility specialist is advisable because the likelihood of spontaneous conception is low, and because of the significant genetic risks of using her own eggs.”
Mature moms can have good outcomes
Despite all those health concerns, the news is far from grim.
A recent study compared women over 40 to those under 30. It concluded that with the use of proper medical treatment and monitoring, outcomes of pregnancy and childbirth weren’t that different.
“Studies of older moms show that most women over 45 or 50 have pretty good pregnancy outcomes,” said Bustillo. “Most are able to cope with the physical and emotional stresses of pregnancy.”
Shaw said the postpartum period requires a lot of stamina, which may be harder to handle at age 50. Much would depend on the mother’s health and level of fitness prior to pregnancy.
“If the pregnancy goes well without complications, there should not be any long-term health consequences for the mother. Breast-feeding should not be a problem at that age,” she said.
Hage said his patients over 40 do quite well. “But [they] are usually very aware of the risks and are willing to accept those risks and interventions that may be necessary.”