What Is a Geriatric Pregnancy? Here's What to Know About the Outdated Term
It's sexist and 'shaming,' says one expert.
When we hear the word “geriatric,” the elderly immediately come to mind. It's an odd word to describe much younger individuals, but that's exactly what's happening. The “geriatric pregnancy” label has been used in association with Meghan Markle, Amy Schumer, Jennifer Lopez, Halle Berry, and Eva Longoria—all women who got pregnant over the age of 35.
The somewhat, well, incredibly offensive medical term was coined many moons ago to describe a woman over 35, whose pregnancy is considered “high risk” for complications and miscarriage due to her older age. When it first started being thrown around, the average age of pregnancy was much younger than it is now. It was less common for a woman to begin having children in her mid-30s.
However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while the mean age for a first birth is 26.9, more and more women are giving birth later in life. In fact, the number of women who became first-time moms between the ages of 40 and 44 more than doubled between 1990 and 2012.
Additionally, in the decades since pregnancies involving women over 35 were first declared geriatric, there have been many substantial medical advancements, making it safer than ever (and possible) for older women to carry a healthy baby to term.
Jamila Vernon, senior manager of media relations and communications at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), explains that the organization never used the term geriatric pregnancy. “ACOG uses the term ‘advanced maternal age,’ she tells Health.com. “Geriatric pregnancy is not an official term.”
But some physicians and media outlets still use the term to describe pregnant women aged 35 or older, something Lubna Pal, MD, an infertility specialist and director of The Menopause Program at Yale Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut, finds incredibly offensive. “The term ‘geriatric pregnancy’ is so obsolete. It really should be eliminated from the lay as well as medical lexicon,” she tells Health.
Due to the changing demographics and increasing average age of first pregnancy, she doesn’t see that it is applicable in today’s medical world. “We need to modify our terminology to match the needs of today.”
She also finds the term to be “shaming” as well as sexist. After all, there isn’t really a term to describe men who impregnate women when they are of advanced paternal age—which comes with its own set of increased health risks for the unborn child. “It's high time that we remove this label, which is so disproportionately burdensome on the woman,” Dr. Pal explains. “It's time we acknowledge the realization that aging brings unique challenges.”
She explains that these “challenges” can include preeclampsia and gestational diabetes, which are positively correlated with age. There is also the physical toll pregnancy can take on the body; it can be more intense the older a woman is.
As far as the fetus, while the overall risk of having a baby with a chromosome abnormality is small, it increases with maternal age, according to ACOG. Down syndrome is one of the most common types of chromosome problems. The risk of having a Down syndrome baby jumps from one in 940 at the age of 30 to one in 85 at 40.
Most maternal risks can be minimized with early and frequent prenatal care visits, explains Dr. Pal.
As for fetal development, doctors suggest more rigorous testing if a woman is considered high risk due to her age. Dr. Pal advises, as a precaution, that any woman over 40 have a preconception consultation with her physician to assess her cardiac function and overall health before getting pregnant.
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