Forget sneaking brie and wine while knocked up, it turns out how you live waaaay before you get that twinkle in your eye can have an astonishing negative effect on your future children. There’s a new’ish science in town called epigenetics (the study of changes in gene activity where the genetic code is not altered but the change still carries on to at least one generation) and when Dr. Lars Olov Bygren studied the sparsely populated northern area of Sweden that was subject to dramatic years of feast or famine the findings were long-reaching, genetically-speaking.
The Time piece is dense, but here’s what you need to know – DNA isn’t unmovable, and nurture is as powerful as nature. Basically, smoking when you’re young can not only cause you a host of health problems, but even if you stop before you conceive (or impregnate – boys are just as culpable here as the sperm and egg are both carrying these markers) it can still shorten the life of your offspring. Something I wish I’d known in my 20s. You know, when I swore I wasn’t ever having children.
But there is good news that involves some tinkering as drugs are developed to “treat illness simply by silencing bad genes and jump-starting good ones.“
Since 2004, the FDA has approved three other epigenetic drugs that are thought to work at least in part by stimulating tumor-suppressor genes that disease has silenced. The great hope for ongoing epigenetic research is that with the flick of a biochemical switch, we could tell genes that play a role in many diseases — including cancer, schizophrenia, autism, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and many others — to lie dormant. We could, at long last, have a trump card to play against Darwin.
Also, unlike evolution, the changes made in your child’s (or grandchild’s) DNA are not permenant. One lab test showed pregnant mice taking folic acid and vitamin B had a positive effect – things you’ll find in your basic pre-natal vitamin.
While it will certainly be exciting to see how these new findings develop – they hope to solve previously unexplained medical mysteries such as the higher rate of autism in boys – it’s also a bit of a relief to know that as a woman, I’m not solely responsible for the fetal development (both good and bad) happening in my womb. Being scolded for every perceived misstep during pregnancy will be sooo turn of the century. Now we can only hope for a new movement requiring hall monitors checking middle school bathrooms for bulimic and smoking kids and a new bestseller “What to Expect When You’re 10-Years-Old and Don’t Give a Sh*t About Your Potential Future Children.”
Still, hooray for science! (I’m feeling a theme for 2010…)