Although we may put a lot of emphasis on how a mother’s lifestyle choices can affect the health of her future children, a recent review has shown that a father’s age and lifestyle may be just as important.

The study, now published online in the American Journal of Stem Cells, has identified the effect that male lifestyle can have on the health of his future offspring. The team reviewed past research that focused on how a man’s lifestyle could cause epigenetic changes in his sperm’s DNA that could eventually affect his offspring’s genome. Among its findings, the study revealed that fathers who are alcoholics could unknowingly influence the organ structure and gene expression in their offspring, causing significant health problems such as fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).

This is a serious health condition that causes significant birth defects and learning difficulties in children, and according to the study, can still be diagnosed in children whose mothers never consumed alcohol during their pregnancy. "Up to 75 percent of children with FASD have biological fathers who are alcoholics, suggesting that preconceptual paternal alcohol consumption negatively impacts their offspring," explained study author Dr. Joanna Kitlinska in a recent statement.

The research was based on epigenetics, a relatively new field of science that explores how our lifestyle and environment can change how certain genes in our DNA are expressed. Although our DNA is set in stone, recently researchers have noted that by altering the physical structure of DNA, certain factors can have an effect not only on your health, but also the health of future generations. For example, a study from 2014 found that endurance training can physically change the way our DNA creates skeletal muscle.

In addition to FASD, alcohol use in fathers was linked to decreased birth weight, marked reduction in overall brain size, and impaired cognitive function. The study also revealed that factors such as a father's age, diet, and stress level could all have effects on the eventual health of his children. For example, paternal obesity was linked to enlarged fat cells in the offspring, changes in metabolic regulation, diabetes, obesity, and even the development of brain cancer. In addition, past research has shown that traumatic events can alter gene expression as well and experiencing famine can “scar” the DNA of not only the individual but also their future offspring.

The team hopes their findings could help us better understand what influences the genetics and health of future offspring, and perhaps even be used to help recommend lifestyle alterations for people who wish to be parents. Thankfully, studies have shown that just as poor lifestyle choices can change DNA for the worse, correcting these habits can also reverse the effect.

"This new field of inherited paternal epigenetics needs to be organized into clinically applicable recommendations and lifestyle alterations," said Kitlinska. "And to really understand the epigenetic influences of a child, we need to study the interplay between maternal and paternal effects, as opposed to considering each in isolation."

Source: Day J, Savani S, Nguyen M, et al. Influence of Paternal Preconception Exposures on Their Offspring-Through Epigenetics to Phenotype. American Journal of Stem Cells. 2016.