On Saturday, actress Brigitte Nielsen announced the birth of her fifth child, at the age of 54. Nielsen has yet to confirm whether she conceived naturally or if she used IVF, and either way, it's not our business to comment on her decision, but given that a woman's chances of conceiving start to decline at age 32, her successful pregnancy seems like a feat — and that's because it is.
"By the mid to late 40s, it's extremely rare for someone to get pregnant naturally or with assistance with their own egg," says Eric J. Forman, MD, medical and laboratory director at Columbia University Fertility Center.
What that means is, it's difficult for a woman to conceive naturally or even with IVF using her own eggs at that age, since the average age of menopause (during which you no longer ovulate and can't conceive naturally) is 51. However, it's certainly not impossible.
"Women even beyond age 50, as long as they’re in good health and their uterus is normal and healthy, can definitely become pregnant," Dr. Forman says. "It’s just extremely unlikely with their own egg from that age, so a woman could have done IVF at a younger age and frozen eggs or frozen embryos, and those remain the age she was at the time the embryos were created."
In other words, because the ovaries stop releasing eggs during menopause, if someone were to freeze their eggs when they were, say, 30, those eggs would remain at that age until they're unfrozen to be fertilized. Therefore, there's a better chance that they'd be what Dr. Forman calls a "good egg" that can result in a healthy baby. In any case, he says, IVF or receiving eggs through a donor are a woman's best chances of getting pregnant after 50.
Women even beyond age 50, as long as they’re in good health and their uterus is normal and healthy, can definitely become pregnant.
Eric Forman, MD
"I don’t know what the oldest reported natural pregnancy is, but I’d say there's easily less than a one in a million chance of having a pregnancy naturally above age 50 — it’s not even 1%," Dr. Forman says. "What’s more common in this age group is that women will get eggs donated from a younger woman, usually an anonymous woman in her 20s. Those can be fertilized with her partner’s sperm, and again a healthy embryo can be placed in a woman’s uterus even in her 50s and she can get pregnant and have a healthy baby."
He adds that though the success rate for fertility treatments decline dramatically by age 45 and above, embryos from egg donation can have a more than 50% success rate. When someone does get pregnant later in life, it's true that there are health risks, such as preeclampsia, higher risk of miscarriage, abnormal pregnancies, pre-term delivery, low birth weight of the baby, and potentially placental problems that could affect the baby’s growth.
"If we’re helping someone achieve a pregnancy in her 50s we give very thorough medical screenings to make sure her heart is healthy," he says. "If she’s healthy, been screened, and the uterus looks normal, most of the time it can result in a healthy baby."
So while the odds aren't high for someone to get pregnant past 50, it is possible. And now that there are more options than ever for women past a certain age to conceive, Dr. Forman says that it might become more common for women to have children later in life.
"While some other age groups are having fewer babies, women above age 40 tends to be an age group that’s growing in terms of how many babies they’re having per year," he says. "I don't think that’ll become the norm, but that’s something that’s available and may become more common."