MEET THE OLDER) PARENTS
As Robert De Niro becomes a father for the seventh time aged 79, joining the likes of Mick Jagger, Richard Gere and Ronnie Wood, PETER SHERIDAN in LA examines the growing phenomenon, and risks, of ageing celebrity dads
IT’S HARD to imagine Robert De Niro changing a newborn baby’s nappies. Harder yet to imagine the rough, tough star of Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and Cape Fear helping with a 3am bottle feed. But at the advanced age of 79, De Niro, whose film hits include Meet The Parents, has become a father again, for the seventh time.
The mother of his child has not yet been named – he already has six children by two former wives and a long-time lover – but the laws of nature suggest she is decades younger. At an age when he could be enjoying great-grandchildren, De Niro joins the growing trend of men fathering children at an advanced age.
Mick Jagger welcomed his eighth child at the age of 73. His Rolling Stone bandmate Ronnie Wood fathered twins at 68. Richard Gere had his third child at 70, and media mogul Rupert Murdoch was 72 when he had his last – or latest – child.
Nick Nolte became a dad at 67, and former president Donald Trump was 60 when he had youngest son Barron.
Veteran actor Tony Randall, star of movie classic The Odd Couple, married at the age of 75 and had two children, his last when aged 78. His son Jefferson was only five years old when Randall died. Becoming a father in old age risks not living long enough to see one’s child grow up.
“He knows he’s extremely old to be a father,” said a friend of Richard Gere. “It’s made him very aware his time is limited.”
De Niro will have to live to at least 101 if he wants to see his newborn graduate from university. His latest movie, the comedy About My Father, coming to British cinemas on May 26, includes an old Italian saying that De Niro’s character lives by: “Family isn’t one thing – it’s everything.”
But as more men father children into their golden years, many are asking whether it is selfish, medically safe or even ethical to bring offspring into the world knowing one may not live long enough to give them the love and support they need.
“For so many years, it was assumed that advancing age only mattered for women,” says Hilary Brown, professor of reproductive medicine at the University of Toronto, Canada. “Paternal age matters as well.”
A Swedish study found that the children of older parents run an increased risk of autism, hyperactive disorders, psychosis, suicide attempts, and poor educational achievement. The risk of bipolar disorder is 24 times greater for the children of older dads.
Other studies have found older fathers increase the risk of their children having leukaemia, breast and prostate cancer.
“Studies have shown that advanced paternal age is associated with negative health behaviours such as smoking and frequent alcohol consumption, obesity, chronic disease, mental illness and subfertility,” says Brown. So why do male stars like De Niro breed at such an advanced age?
THE simplest answer is: because they can.The primal drive to reproduce invariably boosts the ageing male ego. Fame and fortune also allows men to attract younger new wives – often their third or fourth – still of child-bearing age.
And most stars have ample funds to support as many children as they can sire. Hollywood is awash with celebrity fathers who echo Sylvester Stallone’s lament about their grown children: “I didn’t pay enough attention when they were growing up.” Lateage fatherhood gives them a second chance to get it right.
“When I was younger I was selfish and focused on my career,” said comedian Steve Martin, who in 2012 had his first child at 67.
“Now I’m just hanging around the house playing with her. It’s great.” The average age of the first-time father in Britain is 33.6 years, having risen every year for almost two decades.
In America the percentage of children fathered by men over the age of 40 has doubled since the 1970s.
“Men are increasingly having children at a later age, deferring child-rearing for career building,” says urologist Dr Aaron Spitz, of Laguna Beach, California.
While women’s biological clocks begin to slow in their thirties and can run down by their fifties, men’s reproductive powers keep on ticking. Indian vegetarian Ramjit Raghav fathered his second son at the age of 96.
Parents increasingly delay having children until they are financially stable. The cost of raising a child in the UK can range between £129,000 to £327,000, wealth managers Moneyfarm calculated last year.
That’s not an issue for most celebrities – but is that true of De Niro? Divorcing his second wife, Grace Hightower, in 2021, the actor’s lawyer told the judge that De Niro was “working at an unsustainable pace” in order “to support Hightower and pay off all his back taxes.”
Hightower complained that her ex-husband had been “unfairly decreasing” her support payments since they split in 2018. Many are aware of the increased health risks when women give birth after the age of 35, with a greater chance of a child having
Down’s syndrome, but not so well known are the medical issues when the father is older. De Niro’s newborn runs myriad health risks that never faced his first-born, Raphael, 46 years ago. “For the past 500,000 years this has never been an issue, because men didn’t live that long,” says urologist Dr Paul Turek, of San Francisco, California. “Even in 1910 the average male life expectancy was 50 to 55, so becoming a father in one’s 70s was unlikely.
“The concept of fatherhood at an advanced age has only arisen over the last two generations. As women’s eggs age they can develop chromosomal problems, but as men’s sperm ages the problems are more mutational in nature.
“This can lead to a series of rare diseases such as Wilms’s tumour and retinoblastoma, but also diseases like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism and dyslexia.”
An Israeli study of nearly 400,000 men in the 1980s found that the risk of having a child with autism increased sixfold among fathers older than 40. Once men reach 50, the chance of having a child with schizophrenia more than quadruples, the risk of dwarfism rises almost eightfold. Cancer rates also rise in children born to older fathers.
“Having a child at an advanced age also raises the question: Is it fair to parent a child you may not live to rear?” says Turek.
“There are ethical concerns, but couples have children for many reasons, and I don’t judge them.
“I once helped a male patient with a lethal condition to have children, knowing that he would die within a year or two. It enriched his life enormously before he died, and probably helped to extend his life as well. And after all, 55 per cent of children in America are raised with only one parent.”
Despite the increased risks, Turek insists that the chances of disease still remain low. “The risk is never zero,” he says. “But it runs from one per cent for a younger dad to around three-and-a-half per cent for an older dad.”
Yet there are also the physical and mental demands on an older father, from sleepless nights to running after toddlers, managing play-dates and taking kids to sports practice.
A healthy bank balance, a younger wife and nannies can ease that burden.
But De Niro, whose sixth child, Helen – born via surrogate – is now 11, admits fatherhood can be hard work: “She gives me grief sometimes and I argue with her. I adore her, but you know...”
With a newborn, he concedes: “That’ll be more to come. But, that’s what it is. Never gets easier”
‘Fame and fortune allows men to attract younger new wives still of childbearing age’