It is well established that a mother’s age, diet, and environmental exposures may influence the development of offspring. Now, a new study suggests the same can be said for fathers.

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Researchers suggest a father’s age, diet, and other lifestyle factors may influence the development of their offspring.

Published in the American Journal of Stem Cells, the study found that a father’s age, alcohol intake, diet, weight, and psychological stress may impact the risk of birth defects and other conditions in offspring.

These conditions are likely to arise because of the changes to gene expression and cellular response that occur as a result of such factors, and these alterations can be passed through generations. This process is referred to as epigenetics.

The research team reached its conclusion after conducting a review of studies that have previously investigated the association between fathers and heritable genetic alterations in both humans and animals.

Senior investigator Joanna Kitlinska, Ph.D., an associate professor in biochemistry, and molecular and cellular biology at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, DC, and colleagues identified a number of paternal factors that may influence offspring development.

The review found evidence that fathers of an older age are more likely to have children who develop birth defects, autism, or schizophrenia.

Other studies the team reviewed suggested a father’s alcohol use may be associated with reduced birth weight in offspring, as well as a decrease in overall brain size and impaired cognitive function.

Paternal obesity was associated with obesity in offspring, according to the review, as well as enlarged fat cells, changes to metabolic regulation, diabetes, and brain cancer development.

Furthermore, the researchers found that fathers’ psychological stress may raise the risk of offspring having impaired behavioral traits.

Additionally, it was found that a limited diet prior to adolescence among fathers may reduce the risk of their children and grandchildren dying from cardiovascular diseases.

Kitlinska and colleagues say their review offers a “common sense conclusion” – that a father’s age, lifestyle, and environmental exposures can influence the development of his children, and even his grandchildren.

We know the nutritional, hormonal and psychological environment provided by the mother permanently alters organ structure, cellular response and gene expression in her offspring.

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. In this way, a father can affect not only his immediate offspring, but future generations as well.”

Joanna Kitlinska, Ph.D.

Kitlinska believes this increased understanding of paternal epigenetics should be translated into clinical recommendations for lifestyle and other modifiable factors.

“And to really understand the epigenetic influences of a child,” she adds, “we need to study the interplay between maternal and paternal effects, as opposed to considering each in isolation.”

Read about a study that suggests men’s sperm contains more disease-causing mutations as they age.