Demand for IVF treatment among older women soars

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Demand for fertility treatment from older men and women is rising rapidly as more couples postpone childbearing, specialists said yesterday.

Demand for fertility treatment from older men and women is rising rapidly as more couples postpone childbearing, specialists said yesterday.

Up to 30 per cent of women treated in some IVF clinics are aged over 40 and increasing numbers are seeking treatment over 50, according to the latest figures.

The birth of a baby girl, Eliza Maria, to the Romanian University professor Adriana Iliescu, aged 66, making her the world's oldest mother this week, has sparked suggestions that it is never too old to be a parent.

The ages of infertile couples visiting the Lister Hospital, near Chelsea Bridge, has increased over the past five years with almost one in three of the women having IVF at the private hospital being over 40. The upward trend has been seen across the country and is posing medical and ethical challenges.

No upper age limit on in vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment is imposed under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act but clinics are required to take account of the welfare of the child.

The Lister IVF clinic provides 1,500 cycles of treatment a year and has a reputation for treating older couples, although it rarely accepts women over 50. Sam Abdullah, the clinic's medical director, said: "We believe in giving them a chance. Certainly the age limit might be pushed. Women are living longer and healthier lives. At the turn of the century women were dying before the menopause, when now they survive into their eighties. So there has been a massive increase in life expectancy in one century.

"I don't believe in an upper age limit. It depends on the circumstances. We would not treat anyone of the Romanian woman's age. It is against the interest of any unborn child to have a mother of this age. A doctor who provides this treatment is not thinking about his patients, the mother or baby.

"It does smack of double standards that men can father children at any age. But women still assume the role of carers in society, whether that is fair or not. If I were faced with a 52-year-old woman with a younger husband I might consider [treating them]. But it might be different with a 49-year-old woman with a 70-year-old husband."

The British Fertility Society says a limit of 50 should be imposed. Richard Kennedy, a fertility specialist at Walsgrave Hospital in Coventry, and spokesman for the society, said: "We don't wish to pursue treatment beyond the age at which the natural menopause occurs."

Hormonal changes at the menopause make women more prone to heart disease, and the extra stress of pregnancy, which pushes the heart's workload up by 40 per cent, adds to the risk. The HFEA says that nationally, the proportion of women over 40 having IVF is up from 10 per cent in 1998 to 14 per cent last year. Treatment for over-40s is available only privately; the National Institute for Clinical Excellence sets a limit of 39 for NHS treatment.

The trend to older parenthood reflects changing expectations among women who want careers as well as families. But biology is against them. A woman of 35 has half the chance of conceiving that she had at 25. By 40, her chances have been reduced to a fraction of what they were in her twenties. Some clinics, such as the Lister, have rates up to 30 per cent. Professor Alison Murdoch, of the International Centre for Life in Newcastle upon Tyne, which treats 600 patients a year, said: "We see a lot more older women. We shouldn't reject someone for treatment on the basis of age alone."