Reducing maternal mortality rates has been a long-term goal of public health officials. In the past, the majority of research has focused on infant mortality and its relation to the mother’s age (maternal age), leaving the connection between maternal mortality rates and maternal age understudied. Recent research indicates that maternal mortality rates increase significantly after age 39, and women over the age of 50 are actually at a greater risk of death than infants.
A longstanding goal of both developing and developed societies is to decrease the maternal mortality rate. In 2000, the United Nations declared a reduction in maternal mortality and morbidities to be a primary goal by 2015. Historically, the research focus has been on infant mortality rates, with little data available on maternal morbidity. In recent years, women making the decision to have children at increasingly older ages, creating a need for more robust data to properly inform them of the risks pregnancy and childbirth entail.
The importance of understanding how maternal mortality rates increase with age is crucial. Until recently, there was a paucity of research on maternal morbidity in older women. There is a need for more rigorous studies like that of researchers at the University of Manchester who recently published their findings on maternal mortality rates by maternal age.
In their ten-year analysis of a population-based cohort study of all births in Washington State, they found that the maternal mortality rate over age 50 is actually higher for the mother than for the infant. Their findings conclude that even after age 40, women were found to be at risk of severe and even life-threatening obstetric morbidities. This begs healthcare professionals to shift the typical concerns about infant mortality to the risk for the mother.
Despite the marked progress in prenatal care in high-income countries, the trend of older women having children has actually prevented an overall decrease in maternal mortality rates. Clearly, further studies are required physicians to confidently advise and mitigate the health risks for these ‘would-be’ mothers over 40. The decision to delay childbirth to a later age should be one that is supported by more reliable research and informed health care professionals.
Written by Soleil Grisé, HBSc
Lisonkova S, Potts J, Muraca GM, Razaz N, Sabr Y, Chan W-S, et al. (2017) Maternal age and severe maternal morbidity: A population-based retrospective cohort study. PLoS Med 14(5): e1002307. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.100230