There's evidence that a child's future health is influenced by more than just their parents' genetic material and can be impacted by environmental factors, but what is being done with that is something of a concern.

As we have seen in the rash of spurious correlations linking epigenetics of everything from the diet of grandparents to their political parties to future behavior in kids, some people are using the mysteries of biology to promote their cultural agendas. Epigenetic claims are being used to set feminism back decades, since virtually any behavior can find an epigenetic study in a Petri dish to claim that women are impacting future generations. In "Parenting from before conception" for Science, scholars at the University of Adelaide's Robinson Research Institute add to that narrative and say environmental factors prior to conception have more influence on the child's future than previously thought.

Image credit: University of Texas

The paper says that parental influences on a child begin before conception, because stored environmental factors in the egg and sperm are contributing 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,"
says corresponding author and Director of the University's Robinson Research Institute, Professor Sarah Robertson. "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 fetus and after birth. Depending on the situation, we can give our children a burden before they've even started life."

They list anxiety, immune dysfunction and a higher risk of metabolic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. 

But at least they don't dismiss the role of fathers. The authors note that fathers have a much greater role to play in this than previously thought, so kids can't just blame their mothers for everything.

Robertson says it is not all doom and gloom 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 says.

So you can stop smoking and go on a diet and you aren't handing an epigenetic curse to your offspring.

Citation: Michelle Lane, Rebecca L. Robker, Sarah A. Robertson, 'Parenting from before conception', Science, 15 August 2014: 
Vol. 345 no. 6198 pp. 756-760  DOI: 10.1126/science.1254400. Source: University of Adelaide