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Frazzled parents, take note: According to researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and the University of Wisconsin, stressed-out adults have an impact on the development of their children’s genes, which can affect health into adolescence and beyond.

Although it has long been assumed that genetic codes are fixed, the growing field of epigenetics shows that environmental factors, such as anxiety, can influence gene expression and activity, which play major roles in all the body’s functions, from metabolism to tumor suppression.

“What we wanted to know is how early-life experiences change our later physical and mental health,” says Michael Kobor, PhD, an associate professor of medical genetics at UBC.

During the study, scientists analyzed epigenetic changes in more than 100 adolescents by collecting cheek-cell DNA and comparing it with data from their infant and toddler days. The results, published in Child Development (August 2011), show that gene activity linked to healthy brain development and blood-sugar regulation was altered by early parental stress. These changes, which could predispose people to health challenges into adulthood, were still discernible more than a decade later.

“While we don’t know yet whether the changes will have permanent effects on these children,” continues Kobor, “the key is to be aware that what you do as a parent could have lasting effects on your child’s DNA.”

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