NEW YORK – Drinking, smoking or eating badly could put your baby’s health at risk – years before it is conceived.
The latest research suggests that a wild lifestyle in your teens or 20s could come back to haunt you if you become a parent later.
Scientists say there is now ‘overwhelming evidence’ that poor health can be recorded in a father’s sperm or a mother’s eggs.
Obesity or other problems caused by lifestyle can then be passed on to the next generation – making a baby ‘pre-programmed’ for a life of poor health, researchers say.
Leading Australian scientists, building on a decade of research into the way health can be passed between generations, said there is a clear message for prospective mothers and fathers: ‘Parenting starts before conception.’
Professor Sarah Robertson of the University of Adelaide said: ‘People used to think that lifestyle 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 foetus and after birth.
‘Depending on the situation, we can give our children a burden before they’ve even started life.’
The research, published in the journal Science, suggests that babies whose parents had poor lifestyles before conception were more likely to have health problems such as diabetes, heart issues and immune disorders.
Professor Robertson said: ‘Many things we do in the lead up to conceiving is having an impact on the future development of the child – from the age of the parents, to poor diet, obesity, smoking and many other factors, all of which influence environmental signals transmitted into the embryo.’
But lifestyle and events that take place many years before could also have a dramatic impact, the scientists think.
Until recently, scientific thinking relied on the Darwinian evolutionary theory that a baby’s fate is set in stone many years before the child is conceived.
The sequence of two parents’ DNA, itself set by their own parents, effectively predetermined every aspect of a baby’s nature and make-up, the old thinking held.
But the latest research has led to a more subtle understanding of genetics, which accepts that tiny changes are made to an individual’s genes by smoking, diet and other environmental factors that we come across in everyday life.
Scientists think the ability to pass those epigenetic factors to a baby lies in the evolutionary need to adapt to changing environment.
It means, for example, that if a man or woman experience a period of famine, their genes are altered by the ‘memory’ of that hard time so their baby is able to cope with less food.
But if that baby goes on to eat normal amounts, their body cannot cope with the abundance and they can develop metabolic diseases such as diabetes.
Conversely, if a parent overeats in life, the baby adapts to expect lots of food. When they do not get it health problems are the result.
Professor Robertson said it is not all bad news for would-be parents.
‘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 said.