Even if an expectant mom maintains impeccable health during her pregnancy and closely follows every nutritional guideline, the baby may still be negatively affected by the age and lifestyle of the father, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Stem Cells.
The findings reveal that the dad’s age, weight, stress levels, alcohol use, and other environmental factors are linked to birth defects in the baby. The researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center say these defects result from epigenetic alterations that can potentially affect a man’s children and even his grandchildren.
The new findings add to the mounting evidence that both parents, not just the mother, contribute to the health of their offspring — a common sense conclusion which science is only now beginning to demonstrate, says the study’s senior investigator, Joanna Kitlinska, Ph.D., an associate professor in biochemistry, and molecular and cellular biology.
“We know the nutritional, hormonal, and psychological environment provided by the mother permanently alters organ structure, cellular response, and gene expression in her offspring,” says Kitlinska.
“But our study shows the same thing to be true with fathers — his lifestyle, and how old he is, can be reflected in molecules that control gene function,” she says. “In this way, a father can affect not only his immediate offspring, but future generations as well.”
For example, a newborn can be diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), even if the mother has never consumed alcohol, Kitlinska says.
“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 adds.
The report is a review of evidence, human and animal, published to date on the link between fathers and heritable epigenetic programming.
Based on the review findings, the researchers found that advanced age in a father is correlated with elevated rates of schizophrenia, autism, and birth defects in his children. Obesity in the father is linked to enlarged fat cells, changes in metabolic regulation, diabetes, obesity, and development of brain cancer in his children.
A father’s psychosocial stress is also linked to negative behavioral traits in his offspring. Paternal alcohol use leads to decreased newborn birth weight, marked reduction in overall brain size, and impaired cognitive function.
“This new field of inherited paternal epigenetics needs to be organized into clinically applicable recommendations and lifestyle alterations,” Kitlinska says. “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.”