Children are almost twice as likely to die before adulthood if they have a father over 45, research has shown.
A mass study found that deaths of children fathered by over-45s occurred at almost twice the rate of those fathered by men aged between 25 and 30.
Scientists believe that children of older fathers are more likely to suffer particular congenital defects as well as autism, schizophrenia and epilepsy. The study was the first of its kind of such magnitude in the West, and researchers believe the findings are linked to the declining quality of sperm as men age.
A total of 100,000 children born between 1980 and 1996 were examined, of whom 830 have so far died before they reached 18, the majority when they were less than a year old.
The deaths of many of the children of the older fathers were related to congenital defects such as problems of the heart and spine, which increase the risk of infant mortality. But there were also higher rates of accidental death, which the researchers believe might be explained by the increased likelihood of suffering from autism, epilepsy or schizophrenia.
Most research into older parents has, until now, focused on the risks passed on by older mothers. But the new study, published in the European Journal of Epidemiology, was adjusted to take account of maternal age and socio-economic differences.
The research also found higher death rates among children of the youngest fathers, especially those below the age of 19. However, the study said these differences were explained by the risks of teenage motherhood and poorer diet and lifestyle.
Previous research using the same data found that older men were four times as likely to father a child with Down's syndrome, while other studies have found that the genetic quality of sperm deteriorates as men age.
More than 75,000 babies in Britain are born to fathers aged 40 and over each year, or more than one in 10 of all births. This includes more than 6,000 born to fathers aged 50 or over. The average age of fathering a child in this country is 32.
Dr Allan Pacey, senior lecturer in andrology – the medical specialty dealing with male reproduction – at the University of Sheffield, said: "A lot of people know that there are risks for the child that come from having an older mother, but children of older fathers also carry an increased risk. These sorts of results provide another good reason to have children early, when possible."
Dr Pacey, who is secretary of the British Fertility Society, said scientists were unsure exactly what impact the ageing process had on the quality of sperm, making it impossible to detect defects before conception.
Dr Jin Liang Zhu, from the Danish Epidemiology Science Centre, which carried out the research, said: "The risks of older fatherhood can be very profound, and it is not something that people are always aware of."
The mother's age still has the bigger impact on child health, however. About one in 900 babies born to women under 30 have Down's syndrome – a figure which reaches one in 100 by the age of 40. The number of over-40s giving birth in Britain each year has doubled in the past decade to 16,000. The risk of miscarriage rises sharply with age.