Last week Kensington Palace announced that Meghan Markle are expecting their first child.
News of the royal baby made headlines and so did the age of Meghan Markle. That’s because at 37 years old, Markle is considered to be having a “geriatric pregnancy” — a label once often used by doctors to describe pregnancies in women over the age of 35.
Now, however, it’s less likely to hear doctors throwing around the term “geriatric pregnancy,” largely due to its outdated and inappropriate connotations.
It’s much more common to refer to pregnant women over the age of 35 as being of “advanced maternal age.”
The average age women have children is increasing
The Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle is part of a much larger movement in which more and more women are waiting longer to have children, at least in the United States.
Between 2000 and 2014, in fact, the number of first births from women 35 years of age and over in the United States grew by 23 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Previous research suggests that this shift is largely due to the fact that significantly more women have entered the workforce and are now prioritizing their careers, higher education, and financial security.
Advanced maternal age pregnancies do come with certain risks
However, as women age and put off having kids, their egg quality deteriorates and, consequently, their fertility declines.
This decrease kicks off around age 30 and speeds up around 35, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).
“When you’re young and you release an egg, the egg quality is great — most probably that egg is going to take and it’s going to implant. When you get older, the egg quality gets much poorer,” Dr. Shahin Ghadir, a board-certified OB-GYN and assistant clinical professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and Keck School of Medicine at USC, told Healthline.
The remaining eggs in older women are more likely to have abnormal chromosomes, ACOG reported. As a result, the longer women wait to have kids, the more likely they are to run into complications.
Women of advanced maternal age have a higher risk of experiencing high blood pressure during pregnancy — also known as preeclampsia — along with gestational diabetes, a condition in which the body doesn’t produce enough insulin to regulate sugar during pregnancy, Ghadir said.
Miscarriage, multiple pregnancy, premature birth, and cesarean delivery are more common complications as well.
Furthermore, while the risk of having a baby with a chromosomal abnormality — such as Down syndrome — is small, the chances of having a baby with a missing, damaged, or extra chromosome does increase with age.
Be as healthy as possible before getting pregnant
Women ages 35 and over shouldn’t be overly concerned, though, as many in this age bracket give birth to completely healthy babies without complication.
“Trying to be the healthiest you is one of the most important things [to do] before anyone gets pregnant, especially if you’re over 35,” Ghadir said.
Don’t skip out on your annual physical exam, and be sure to get your blood sugar, blood pressure, thyroid, and uterine cavity checked prior to conceiving, Ghadir advised.
Taking prenatal vitamins such as folic acid, eating a healthy diet, and exercising regularly can help minimize complications as well.
Women have more options than ever. However, even the healthiest women can run into childbirth complications, which is why it’s imperative for all women over 35 just like “Meghan Markle” to undergo prenatal screening tests to determine their risk of having a baby with a birth defect or genetic disorder.
If doctors suspect you may be prone to a complication or infertility, there are plenty of treatment options available to help you get pregnant.
“Advancements in the area of maternal fetal medicine, which is also known as high-risk obstetrics, have allowed women with advanced maternal age to have successful pregnancies and carefully monitor women during their pregnancies,” Ghadir said.
For example, if infertility or genetics are an issue, in vitro fertilization (IVF) — a procedure in which sperm is combined with a woman’s eggs in a laboratory — can help you get pregnant at any age.
Additionally, if you’re well into your 30s and have no immediate plans of having children, Ghadir recommends freezing your eggs. This process allows women to harvest their healthy eggs and store them for later use.
Freezing your eggs at a younger age could significantly increase your chances of having a healthy, uncomplicated pregnancy later on in life, he said.
Sure, pregnancies in women of advanced maternal age are riskier, but as long as the pregnancy is closely monitored and well cared for, most women will be able to give birth to happy, healthy babies.
The bottom line
Meghan Markle is part of a growing trend of women waiting until they’re older to have children.Experts say there can be increased health risks and fertility issues, but that women shouldn’t be afraid of getting pregnant over age 35.
Physicians and other medical experts advise women to undergo additional testing if they’re over age 35 to help ensure they have a healthy child. As more women wait until their late 30s or 40s to have children, fertility experts say that freezing eggs in younger years can help women conceive when they’re ready.