For decades, expectant mothers have been cautioned about smoking tobacco products and drinking alcohol, but now an expanding body of research suggests that men who are trying to have children should be just as careful as mothers.
Carina Storrs, writing for CNN, reports that what fathers are exposed to can also have lasting effects on their youngsters' health. Alcohol use, smoking, age, and nutritional standing can have an impact on a baby's risk of developing birth defects, fetal alcohol syndrome, autism, and other maladies.
Joanna B. Kitlinska, an associate professor of biochemistry and molecular and cellular biology at Georgetown University Medical Center, says that everyone thought there was no logical connection between fathers' lifestyles and the health of a fetus.
Kitinska and other Georgetown researchers wrote an article that reviewed prior research on the subject, which was published in the American Journal of Stem Cells.
If a woman consumes alcohol during pregnancy, the alcohol crosses the placenta and can result in inferior coordination, delays in cognitive development, heart defects, and low birth weight. But research over the past ten years suggests that fathers who drink alcohol regularly before conceiving also increase the risk of their child having fetal alcohol syndrome. In fact, alcoholism or heavy drinking by men before conceiving has been linked to as many as 75% of affected babies.
Drinking, smoking, or engaging in other risky behaviors seem to mark their progeny through epigenetics, which are the biological processes that finely adjust genes without mutating them.
"Alcohol consumption has been associated with an epigenetic change called methylation, which adds to or takes away a molecule called a methyl group that sits on DNA and influences whether genes are active or silent," according to CNN.
Another critical aspect of paternal health that can wreak havoc on children and even future generations of the family is obesity. Research shows that obesity is connected to the addition of methyl groups to genes that affect metabolism and growth. The methyl groups are added to genes in sperm cells and the offspring.
Most epigenetic changes that the embryo inherits from the mother or father are eliminated as the embryo develops, but some specific genes can become imprinted, which means they save the changes through gestation and on into childhood.
It may be that methylation can help explain the mystery surrounding why older men are likelier to have autistic or schizophrenic children, and also young ones with heart defects.
The authors of the study believe that a dad's behaviors can impact his sperm cells, which he passes on through the epigenome, writes Suzannah Weiss for Glamour Magazine. It appears that it takes two to have a healthy baby.
The AFP News Agency adds that a healthy diet during the pre-teen years of the father can reduce the chance of cardiovascular death in his kids and grandkids. And a father's obesity is associated with enlarged fat cells, metabolic regulation shifts, diabetes, and brain cancer in his baby.
The psychosocial stress of a dad can be linked to adverse behavioral characteristics in his young ones, and alcohol use can lead to a reduction in the size of an infant's brain. The research team states that studies should be organized so that lifestyle suggestions can be given to those who plan to have children.
On the bright side, scientists have found, says Dana Dovey of Medical Daily, that changes in DNA due to poor lifestyle choices can be reversed by correcting these habits.
"This new field of inherited paternal epigenetics needs to be organized into clinically applicable recommendations and lifestyle alterations," said Kitlinska. "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."