A recent study points out “the possible links between birth defects and paternal age, environmental factors, and alcohol consumption” and the need for future research on the subject.
Women are consistently bombarded with messages about how to maintain their health and that of (merely) potential future children. Don’t wait until you are “old” to get pregnant! Avoid caffeine! Don’t smoke! Don’t drink a drop of alcohol! Eat this, don’t eat that! Exercise, don’t strain yourself! Rest, stay active! Don’t get on that airplane, rollercoaster, etc. What on earth is today’s conscious woman to do?
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My Mama Said
So much of this across-the-board advice seems to treat all women as, above all else, baby-making machines. And so, forgive our admittedly ecstatic relief that the latest research has found a link between birth defects and the fathers’ age, lifestyle and alcohol use. “Men are being warned to become fathers by 40 or face a greater risk of having children with serious illnesses,” the Daily Mail reports after a new review looked at some of the evidence about paternal influences on the risk of childhood diseases.
[However, I note that this is still an opinion piece. We cannot report how the researchers selected the evidence they reviewed, and it is possible that not all relevant research was considered.]
Georgetown University Medical Center is actively conducting research funded by the US National Institutes of Health on the potential influence of both parents. “We know the nutritional, hormonal and psychological environment provided by the mother permanently alters organ structure, cellular response and gene expression in her offspring,” said researcher Joanna 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 added, “In this way, a father can affect not only his immediate offspring, but future generations as well.”
Drinking Fathers – Baby Daddy, Do You Care?
This study, published in the peer-reviewed American Journal of Stem Cells (open access: the study can be downloaded for free as a PDF), has reviewed reams of research (with test subjects both human as well as throughout the animal kingdom]) and found growing evidence for the importance of the other half of the human creating equation.
The paper looks specifically at heritable epigenetic (epigenetics: the idea that, though a person’s DNA sequence may not change, their exposures over the course of a lifetime may lead to changes in their gene activity and expression that can be passed on to their children) programming, which is a jargoned way of saying “the way the environment influences the expression of genes across generations.”
It should be emphasized that neither the Daily Mail nor The Times recognize the important limitations of this review: namely, that is it is not a systematic review, so it carries far less weight with the medical community and the general public.
Researchers found a correlation between advanced paternal age and higher rates of serious mental illness and birth defects among his children (i.e. heart defects, musculoskeletal abnormalities, the Autism-Spectrum and Down’s syndrome). Similar to the mother, the offspring’s fathers’ alcohol use was linked to lower birth weight and brain size, as well as reduced cognitive function, all of which are symptoms of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).
Then there was paternal obesity, which was associated with a propensity for enlarged fat cells, diabetes, and obesity among his offspring. Even a daddy’s psychosocial stress is tied to “behavioral defects” in the next generation.;
In addition three-quarters of babies with FASD– birth defects normally associated with maternal consumption of alcohol during pregnancy – are reported to have fathers with alcohol use problems. However, this doesn’t tell us anything about what the mother is/was doing.
So, it now seems apparent that it isn’t just women who should be worrying about their about ticking biological clocks—not to mention how their personal lifestyle choices since birth will impact their possible offspring. That said, more research has to be done before the link between fathers and birth defects can be translated into practical applicable advice for wannabe baby daddys.
To conclude, as Kitlinska points out, the takeaway here is that both parents are critically important to the health of their baby. “To really understand how [the environmental influences on parent’s genetics will affect their] child’s DNA and gene expression,” she said, “we need to study the interplay between maternal and paternal effects, as opposed to considering each in isolation.”
However, given the limitations of this review and the lack of methods given, this piece should not be taken as firm evidence that fathers are putting their children at risk by delaying fatherhood.
Both Baby-Makers (Buyers) Beware
All limitations aside, advice that men hoping to become fathers should avoid confirmed hazardous lifestyle behaviors, such as: tobacco use, excessive consumption of alcohol, lack of regular exercise, eating a poor diet, use of pharmaceuticals, etc. seems more than sensible. But, we are individuals, not petri dishes or labwork, and so moving forward we must incorporate more active studies to continue interpreting these facts synergistically.