A child's future health is not only influenced by parents' genes, according to researchers from The University of Adelaide in Australia; unhealthy parents may set up their children for poor health, even before they are conceived.
The research team, including Prof. Sarah Robertson of the Robinson Research Institute at the university, recently published their findings in the journal Science.
It is well established that genes can be passed to offspring, potentially affecting their future health. But according to Prof. Robertson, recent research has provided substantial evidence that parental history, even when it is not encompassed in genes, can significantly influence the future health of their child.
"It's only been in the last 10 years that the science community has been seriously discussing these issues," says Prof. Robertson, "and only in the last 5 years that we've begun to understand the mechanisms of how this is happening, with much of the work conducted right here at The University of Adelaide."
'We can give our children a burden before they have even started life'
In this latest study, the researchers suggest that even well before conception, a parent with poor health may predispose their offspring to have poor health.
For example, a parent who is obese could significantly increase the risk of their child developing metabolic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. The team notes that anxiety and immune dysfunction could also be passed down.
Prof. Robertson explains that this is because many things we do in our lives - such as adopting a poor diet or smoking - are stored in the egg and sperm. They are translated into environmental signals that are transmitted to the embryo.
Prof. Robertson comments:
"People used to think that it didn't matter, because a child represented a new beginning, with a fresh start.
The reality is, we can now say with great certainty that the child doesn't quite start from scratch; they already carry over a legacy of factors from their parents' experiences that can shape development in the fetus and after birth. Depending on the situation, we can give our children a burden before they've even started life."
She adds that there is increasing evidence that fathers play a larger role in the future health of their child than previously thought. Last year, for example, Medical News Today reported on a study published in BMC Medicine, suggesting children born to obese fathers are more likely to develop cancer.
But despite their findings, Prof. Robertson notes it may not be too late for parents-to-be to make some changes that influence their child's health for the better.
"A few lifestyle changes by potential parents and improvements in the right direction, especially in the months leading up to conception, could have a lasting, positive benefit for the future of their child," she says.
Medical News Today recently reported on a study by researchers from the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York, NY, claiming antibiotic exposure in early life may increase the risk of later-life obesity and metabolic abnormalities.