Parents' roles start before most plan
Australian researchers say people should be more aware of epigenetics, and the various ways that a parent’s experiences can filter down to their child.
There is overwhelming evidence that a child's future health is influenced by more than just genetic material.
For instance, children born of unhealthy parents will already be pre-programmed for greater risk of poor health, according to University of Adelaide researchers.
In a new paper called "Parenting from before conception", experts say environmental factors prior to conception have more influence on the child's future than previously thought.
“It's only been in the last 10 years that the science community has been seriously discussing these issues, and only in the last five years that we've begun to understand the mechanisms of how this is happening,” says Professor Sarah Robertson, Director of the University's Robinson Research Institute.
The paper says parental influences on a child begin before conception, because stored environmental factors in the egg and sperm contribute more than just genetic material to the child.
“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,” Professor Robertson says.
“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 foetus and after birth. Depending on the situation, we can give our children a burden before they've even started life.”
This includes a higher risk of metabolic diseases, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The likelihood of conditions like anxiety and immune dysfunction can also be affected.
New research is suggesting that fathers have the greatest role in epigenetic changes than previously thought.
But Professor Robertson says there is plenty of hope 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.