It's known that a pregnant woman’s nutrition and lifestyle choices, including drinking, smoking and even her psychological state, can play a role in the health and development of her child. Now comes research from Georgetown University that suggests a connection between a child’s health and a father's age, lifestyle and life experiences.
Epigenetics: different view about DNA
The idea that a parent’s lifestyle, behavior, stress level and other factors can affect the health of a child is based on epigenetics. Epigenetics refers to heritable changes in individual genes. These changes don’t affect the actual sequence of DNA, but are thought to alter genetic traits that can be passed down to the next generation. Epigenetic changes are believed to occur in sperm and egg cells, and in the genes of developing fetuses.
The lead author of the study, Joanna Kitlinska, an associate professor in biochemistry and molecular and cellular biology at Georgetown University Medical Center, said a man’s lifestyle "and how old he is can be reflected in molecules that control gene function. In this way, a father can affect not only his immediate offspring, but future generations as well."
As an example, Kitlinska points to a newborn diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, or FASD, even though the mother of the baby didn’t drink. "Up to 75 percent of children with FASD have biological fathers who are alcoholics, suggesting that preconceptual paternal alcohol consumption negatively impacts their offspring," she said.
Human and animal research
The Georgetown team reviewed human and animal studies published to date on the link between fathers and heritable changes in genes.
Some of the studies suggested:
- Children born to middle-aged men have a higher risk of schizophrenia, autism and birth defects.
- A reduced diet during a father's pre-adolescence lowers the risk of cardiovascular death in his children and grandchildren.
- Paternal obesity is linked to enlarged fat cells, changes in metabolic regulation, diabetes, obesity and development of brain cancer.
- Psychosocial stress on a father is linked to behavioral traits in his children.
- Paternal alcohol use leads to decreased newborn birth weight, marked reduction in overall brain size and impaired cognitive function.
Kitlinska said clinicians should be educated about the new field of inherited paternal epigenetics so they can recommend lifestyle changes for men when necessary. "And to really understand the epigenetic influences of a child, we need to study the interplay between maternal and paternal effects, as opposed to considering each in isolation," she said.
What to do if you plan to have kids
The Centers for Disease Control suggests these steps for men who plan to have children:
- Prevent and treat sexually transmitted diseases (STDs): Get screened and treated for any STDs.
- Stop smoking, using drugs and drinking excessively: A pregnant woman who is exposed to secondhand smoke has 20 percent higher chance of giving birth to a baby with low birth weight than women who are not exposed to secondhand smoke during pregnancy.
- Be careful with toxic substances: Learn how to protect yourself and your loved ones from toxic substances and other harmful materials at work and at home.
- Reach and maintain a healthy weight: The key to achieving and maintaining a healthy weight isn't short-term dietary changes. It's a lifestyle that includes healthy eating and regular physical activity.
- Get mentally healthy: Mental health is how we think, feel and act as we cope with life. To be at your best, you need to feel good about your life and value yourself. Seek professional help if you suffer from depression or another mental disorder.
For more information about how to prepare for fatherhood, talk with your health care provider. You can find a Providence provider here.