Most of us who have delayed childbearing live with the spectre of Down's Syndrome and many congenital deformities automatically increasing with our advancing age, particularly for first birth. Indeed, most obstetricians will pull out a little chart (whose numbers vary from doctor to doctor), informing you of your percentage risk. At 38, I was supposed to have a 1.5 per cent risk. This risk supposedly goes up to 2.4 per cent at 40 and 4 at 42. In other words, medicine maintains 4 out of 100 women at that age will automatically have a Down's baby, regardless of health history.
There is a good deal of evidence that certain nutritional and environmental factors have more to do with increased risk than age alone. Medicine tacitly accepts this now that the triple test, rather than age, will determine risk. Robert Mendelsohn, for one, decried what he called the "tired egg" theory. In Male Practice, he claims there is substantial evidence that this increased risk has more to do with the cumulative effects of x-rays, so that only mothers subjected to constant batteries of radiation (including dental x-rays) would be at increased risk.In Preparing for a Healthy Baby Belinda Barnes notes that substantial evidence in the States links a low level of selenium in the mother with an increased risk of Down's Syndrome. And a study of 23,000 women published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last year showed that the risk of spina bifida was increased fourfold in women who were low in folic acid, during the first six weeks of pregnancy.
If you are over 35, you can maximize your chances of producing a healthy baby by:
Getting fit a year before you hope to conceive. Go to a practitioner who can measure levels of vital nutrients like selenium, zinc and folic acid.
Avoiding unnecessary x-rays whenever possible (see our Q & A section this month) or insisting on a lead shield, even when you have to have dental x-rays.
Writing to Foresight (enclosing SAE), The Old Vicarage, Witley, Godalming, Surrey GU8 5PN. Consider following their preconception programme with the help of a trained practitioner. They claim a very high success rate of healthy babies, even with women in their forties.