Older dads have geekier sons


The sons of older fathers tend to score higher on the ‘geek index’, a new study has found. Andrew Masterson reports.


An old man playing chess with a young boy.
The older a boy's father, the higher he is likely to score on the 'geek index'.
Carol Yepes / Getty

Older fathers tend to produce smarter sons: that’s the welcome finding arising from a study of 15,000 UK-based twin pairs, published in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

The discovery – unearthed by a data mining exercise conducted by scientists from King's College London in the UK and the Icahn School of Medicine in the US – to an extent mediates concerns raised by other recent studies that have found increased risks for autism and schizophrenia in the children of older dads.

In the new study, a team led by Magdalena Janecka from King's College London collected behavioural and cognitive data from the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS), a longitudinal study that has been going since 1994.

At the age of 12, the children in the study are asked to complete an online questionnaire that seeks to measure some key behavioral characteristics, namely non-verbal IQ, the strength of concentration, and the degree to which each child cares about peer interaction and approval.

Janecka’s team correlated the results thus far gathered, positioning them against information about the parents.

In their report, the scientists write: “Although these traits are continuously distributed in the population, they cluster together in so-called ‘geeks’.”

Constructing what they called a “geek index” and controlling for several potential distorting factors, such as parental income and educational levels, they found that, for boys, the older their fathers were, the further up the geek scale they tended to sit. (Paternal age had no notable effect on geekiness in girls.)

This was good news for those boys, the researchers concluded, because position on the geek index was “strongly predictive of future academic attainment”.

“To our knowledge,” the added, “this is the first time that advanced parental age was shown to associate with an advantageous outcome.”

Janecka and colleagues also speculated that the characteristics measured to construct the geek index might throw additional light on studies linking older dads with autism.

“It is possible that the factors mediating the association between advanced paternal age and GI are overlapping with those between advanced paternal age and autism,” they state.

“Although autism is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder that is qualitatively different from being a ‘geek’, it is possible that some of its facets are captured by the index measured in the current study.”

These facets, they suggest, include social aloofness and high non-verbal intelligence, and may help explain the “high prevalence of individuals with the broad autism phenotype in certain professional groups, including academics, engineers and musicians”.

The study also looked at the molecular mechanisms underlying the effects in offspring identified as linked to “advanced paternal age”, and concluded that geek index position “was 57% heritable.”

The take-home message? Geeks will be geeks. And so will their sons.

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Andrew Masterson is news editor of Cosmos.
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