Lifestyle Choices of Aspiring Fathers May Affect Their Children

Recent research published in the journal Science suggests that the lifestyle choices aspiring fathers make today not only affect the way they age, but also the health of their children and grandchildren. Researchers attributed this to something called epigenetics—a process through which behaviors and environmental factors can affect you (and your future children) by modifying your genes.

What Is Epigenetics?
Epigenetics describes the effects that outside factors have on how your genes affect your physical characteristics—known as your phenotype. Genotype, your genetic code itself, however, is not changed by epigenetics. This means that lifestyle choices may, for example, prevent genes that cause cancer from being “activated.”

What Epigenetic Factors Did Researchers Find in the Study?
In the study, researchers at McGill University looked at something called histones—proteins that help order DNA. When the researchers made slight modifications to histones in sperm cells of male mice, they found that the offspring had birth defects such as abnormal skeletal formation. Remarkably, the offspring passed the same defects on to their own offspring, even though their actual genetic code was not modified—just the histones!

Why Is This Important for Aging?

Although these experiments were performed in laboratory mice, they may have important implications. It is clear that certain poor lifestyle choices such as excessive smoking and drinking, as well as stress, have adverse effects on healthy lifespan. Some studies have also shown that these poor lifestyle choices can cause epigenetic changes in your DNA and possibly accelerate aging. Further research in mice and studies in humans have also shown that behavioral patterns like anxiety can alter histones and cause epigenetic changes. But don’t worry, there is good news, too: Other research shows that stress-relieving activities such as meditation have positive effects on histones. What does it all mean? Epigenetics is a relatively new and evolving research field, so not much is certain. However, these recent studies do show that what you do today can affect your children tomorrow.

(Feature photo courtesy of CDC/Cade Martin)

Marcel Davidse

Marcel Davidse was an intern with the Healthy Aging Project in the fall of 2016, and graduated in December 2016 from the Department of Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado Boulder.