By BETHANY MCKAY
As the age that women give birth steadily rises, studies under way at Monash University are aiming to help mothers win the race against their biological clocks.
Led by Dr Karla Hutt, the university’s Ovarian Biology Laboratory is working to help women have safe pregnancies and healthy babies during later reproductive years.
The Australia’s mothers and babies report, released by the Australian Government in 2017, shows maternal age is continuing to rise, with the average age of women giving birth now more than 30 years old.
The report also showed the number of mothers aged 35 and over rose from 20 per cent in 2005 to 22 per cent in 2015. Meanwhile, women under 25 having babies decreased from 19 per cent to 15 per cent in the same time.
Dr Hutt’s mission is to better understand the medical complications of reproduction in older women.
“The big picture of what we do is aimed at helping women to have healthy pregnancies and babies,” she said.
Dr Hutt’s primary concern at the center of her studies is “understanding factors that determine egg number and quality as women age, and then this knowledge is used to ensure healthy reproductive ageing in women”.
In the long term, she hopes the studies will also help predict how long an individual woman has left in her fertile window, “so that she can make informed choices about when to start her family”.
“The more we understand about the factors required to build a good quality egg, and how those processes become compromised with age, the better chance we have of ensuring good reproductive outcomes in women.”
Women are born with their entire egg supply stored inside their ovaries in follicle structures. However recent studies published in the Journal of Society for Reproduction and Fertility found as women age the quality and quantity of their egg stores decreases and this is where Dr Hutt is focusing her research.
“Every day a few follicles begin to grow and develop, eventually leading to the ovulation of a mature oocytes” while other follicles die, she said.
“In fact, of the million or more follicles present at birth, only around 400 will survive through the development process and make it to ovulation. So as women get older, they have fewer and fewer follicles left.”
Having children later in life can also lead to other risks as the pregnancy progresses, Dr Hutt said, such as miscarriage, stillbirth, pre-eclampsia (life-threatening high blood pressure), gestational diabetes, bleeding and clots.
“Older women who have children are more likely to need a cesarean section and their babies are at greater risk of being born too soon and too small.”
A 2017 report by the Australian Institute Of Health and Welfare found that between the years of 2012-2014 more than 20 per cent of maternal deaths were mothers over 35.
Mother-of-four Karen, from Glen Waverley, said that when she was trying to fall pregnant after the age of 30 she had three miscarriages: at ages 30, 32 and 46.
During this time she experienced bleeding for “up to 12 weeks”.
“It was very scary,” she said.
Melbourne mother-of-three Fiona Weir, 35, experienced serious complications throughout her third pregnancy.
“We decided to have a baby later on as we felt like we were in a better place financially and had a lot more support,” she said.
During this pregnancy Mrs Weir experienced many complications for both herself and her baby.
“I started bleeding at six weeks, and by eight weeks it was so heavy I was on strict bed rest up until 12 weeks.”
At the 16 week scan Ms Weir was also told there were major health and developmental concerns for her unborn child and was recommended by doctors to abort the pregnancy.
“They told me my baby had cysts on both sides of the brain and would most likely suffer from mental and physical conditions,” she said.
“Being older I often felt exhausted and had less energy compared to my other pregnancies.”
Further information of Dr Karla Hutt and her research progress can be found here.