Healthy fathers have healthy children

New Zealand men may be impacting the health of their future children through poor health and lifestyle behaviours prior to conception.

A new evidence brief by Chloe Wilkinson, Dr Felicia Low and Sir Peter Gluckman at Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures sheds light on how a father’s health, age and alcohol and drug use can affect the health of future generations.

It is well established that the health and lifestyle behaviours of women are important in the wellbeing of their children. However, men’s health in the lead-up to fatherhood, and the consequences for their children, have been the subject of much less study. New research suggests their health should be given greater emphasis.

Now, says Koi Tū Research Assistant Chloe Wilkinson, the concept of the “developmental origins of health and disease (DOHaD)” is turning the spotlight on the part men play in determining the environmental conditions a child is exposed to before birth and how that affects the offspring’s health.

Combined with growing knowledge about epigenetics — by which some genes can be switched on or off depending on environmental factors — DOHaD is changing the way inheritance is understood. For an unborn child, such factors can include a father’s physical and mental health, age, and consumption of alcohol, tobacco and drugs.

“Although most research on the effect of environmental conditions on young children’s wellbeing has focused on pregnant women, we’re increasingly seeing that biological fathers may pass on health and disease risks via sperm,” says Ms Wilkinson.

The findings are the result of both human and animal studies.

The father’s health and lifestyle factors thought to most affect a child’s health are bodyweight and diet. A child whose father was overweight around the time of conception has an increased likelihood of obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

“However, it’s not yet clear how much of this is due to epigenetic inheritance, genetic effects or the father’s influence on the family’s diet,” says Ms Wilkinson.

Poor mental health may also be passed on, as seen in a Scandinavian study. Researchers who followed 60,000 Finnish children whose fathers had been hospitalised for a psychiatric illness found they were twice as likely to be diagnosed with a mental disorder by age 21. In animals, the offspring of fathers subjected to stress or trauma are more susceptible to symptoms of depression and anxiety, and this has been shown to be transmitted through sperm.

Where advanced paternal age — defined as between 35 and 45 — and alcohol, tobacco and illicit drug use are concerned, a range of adverse child-health effects have been observed. Biological processes in older fathers affect sperm, and ingesting alcohol, tobacco and drugs has been linked to numerous poor outcomes, from low birth weight to birth defects and learning difficulties.

New Zealand men, like their peers in most high-income countries, have high rates of obesity and non-communicable disease, putting a significant proportion of Kiwi fathers at risk of adversely affecting the health of their children, says Koi Tū Research Fellow Dr Low.

“We need to consider ways to raise fathers’ awareness of both the biological and  social roles they play in the health of their children even before conception,” she says.

“This could be achieved through public health campaigns and primary-health providers providing targeted guidance to intending fathers. Integrating the concept of paternal origins of health and disease in school learning programmes could also be valuable,” says Dr Low.

A key implication of the latest research is that the burden of responsibility for the health of future generations should not be placed just on women, says Ms Wilkinson.

“Wider awareness of the role both men and women play across generations is needed to help normalise shared responsibility for children’s health,” she says. “Public health will benefit if we put these concepts into practice within our medical, education and policy communities.”

This work has been generously supported by the Wright Family Foundation.

The evidence brief, a one-page summary and an associated podcast are available here

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