Environmental exposures and our health
There is a definite link between your family health history and your own. Genetics lay the foundations of our health and our disposition to a range of diseases. But our environment influences the behaviour of our genes and determines how our genes function throughout our lives. Believe it or not, the lifestyle choices your parents and grandparents made years ago may still be having an impact on your health, and many of the choices you make every day could have long-term implications for the health and wellbeing of your children. So, with even more evidence to support the idea that our families’ health influences our own, how much responsibility should we be taking for the long-term health of our children?
The answer is, a lot.
From conception through to adolescence and beyond, environmental and lifestyle factors play a significant role in determining the health of our children. Throughout a child’s life parents make the overwhelming majority of decisions about their lifestyle and environment. This puts a lot of responsibility on our shoulders, but we can regulate and control many aspects of our environment. So, we have the power to protect ourselves and future generations from disease and actively increase the chances we’ll live a long and healthy life.
There is a discipline of science and medicine referred to as Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD). DOHaD refers to the role our early life environment has in determining our lifelong health and disease risk. DOHaD defines our early life environment as the time of conception through to the end of our second year of life, so about 1000 days.
According to DOHaD, the environmental factors that may be detrimental to our long-term health include:
• The nutrition we received from our mother during pregnancy, including whether we were breastfed or not.
• The foods that were introduced during childhood.
• The toxins we might have been exposed to, such as if our mother drank alcohol, whether our parents smoked, chemicals found in personal care products, plastics we might have eaten out of, pesticides on the foods we consumed, pollution in the air and so on.
• The sleep patterns we established early in life.
• The health of our father, which was transferred to us via his sperm.
• The amount of exposure to dirt and the natural environment we received.
• Whether we had pets and were subsequently exposed to healthy microorganisms and bacteria.
• The support and love we did or did not receive during this time, including any traumas we may have been exposed to.
With these considerations in mind, the utmost care should be taken during the first two years of life as this precious and vulnerable time presents an incredible opportunity to shape an individual’s future wellbeing and life-long health.
As our organs develop during pregnancy, this period represents an extraordinary opportunity for future parents to invest in the long-term health of their babies. At no other time will the environment we provide have as much direct influence on the wellbeing of our children. And while this may not be big news to anyone, most of us don’t realise that your lifestyle during pregnancy not only affects the health of your unborn child, but could affect the health of your grandchildren as well.
As women, we are born with a full complement of eggs in our ovary. If we have a daughter, the eggs in our daughter’s ovary, will develop within our womb. Therefore, we have a direct role in influencing the reproductive health of both our daughter and our future grandchildren. Similarly, the health of your grandmother directly impacted on the development of the egg that became you and has influenced your health.
Before we all rush off to blame our parents and grandparents for ruining our health – we can use this information to our advantage. Most of the disease risk that we might be born with is modifiable. In other words, if we know we have the risk, we can do something about it. In almost all intervention studies in this field of research, those that encourage healthy lifestyles, show a reduction and even a normalisation of disease risk.
This is why our environmental exposures and the lifestyle choices we make during adolescence are so important. Adolescence is another time of great vulnerability and opportunity. As teenagers, our bodies are changing dramatically. The extent of the changes that occur to both the structure and function of our organs and tissues during adolescence means that good health and self-care during adolescence can positively influence our behaviors, skills and opportunities making us healthier, less susceptible to disease and more productive during adulthood.
Learn more about adolescent health here
Talking health across the generations
If we want to take positive steps towards improving our health, the first place to start is with conversation. Find out about your family history and learn what you can about your early life exposures and those of your parents. Share stories and memories with your children. If we foster an environment where information can be shared without judgement or blame, we can stimulate the kind of discussions that can connect generations and bring families closer, with better health.
Address the pillars of good health – nutrition, physical activity, social connectedness and spirituality. Find out what works for you and your family and remember we are all only as good as the tools and knowledge we have available to us at any given time. Make the most of the information you have. It’s never too late to pursue positive interventions and even taking small steps to a healthier lifestyle will have noticeable benefits. Look to mother nature or your ancestors for wisdom and guidance.
• Moore, T.G., Arefadib, N., Deery, A., & West, S. (2017). The First Thousand Days: An Evidence Paper. Parkville, Victoria; Centre for Community Child Health, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.