children father epigenetic
Fathers, not just mothers, can influence their children's health through epigenetic changes. Istock

How old a father is and how much alcohol he drinks can influence children's well-being and development – much like their mothers' health status does. Scientists have shown fathers may also be partly to blame for birth defects and health problems faced by their babies.

The fact that the health of both parents can have an impact on their offspring's health may seem logical, yet it is only recently that science has started to look for evidence of the father's role.

This latest research, published in the American Journal of Stem Cells, is actually a literature review of studies dealing with this issue.

Evidence from science

Among the papers reviewed by the team were epidemiological, animal and epigenetic studies. Based on these previous findings, the scientists from Georgetown University show that not only do fathers' health status influence how their own children fare, but it can also affect other descendants for multiple generations beyond that as well.

"We know the nutritional, hormonal and psychological environment provided by the mother permanently alters organ structure, cellular response and gene expression in her offspring," says lead author 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 says. "In this way, a father can affect not only his immediate offspring, but future generations as well."

Epigenetic and health outcomes

The data they analysed indeed allowed then to draw an association between health problems, birth defects and epigenetic changes in children whose fathers were older, obese and with unhealthy lifestyles.

In particular, the scientists discovered that an advanced age was correlated with elevated rates of schizophrenia, autism and birth defects in children, while obesity appeared to induce further obesity in children, as well as dysfunctional metabolic regulation, diabetes, and even the development of brain cancer.

Alcohol use was tied to lower birth weights and a significant reduction in overall brain size with impaired cognitive function. These different health outcomes could often be observed in epigenetic alterations.

Cancer and stress

This work was intended for the team to prepare for a research project they are about to undertake. It will involve conducting an animal study to find out if day-to-day stress in fathers and mothers is linked to higher rates of paediatric cancers.

Kitlinska told IBTimes UK: "Maternal prenatal stress can increase the risk of paediatric cancers, and the hypothesis we are going to test is that the same can happen when fathers are also stressed out. Before we began our investigation, we wanted to know where science stood in terms of fathers' influence on offspring's health".