What if I told you that every bad thing that happens to you, or every poor choice you make today could potentially cause long term health effects to not only your own health, but also the health of your children, your children’s children, and their children, and so on, and so on, for countless generations? What if I told you that current social distancing practices due to the 2019-20 novel coronavirus could create a stressful enough response in children to result in long lasting alterations to their genetic material, and that those changes can result in serious health problems? The CDC (2020) recognizes that COVID-19 “may be stressful for people,” and that “fear and anxiety about a disease can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in adults and children.” The CDC (2020) also warns parents to watch for behavioral changes in their children. Since not all children and teens respond to stress in the same way, it may be difficult to assess exactly how well a child is coping with lifestyle changes due to COVID-19. Many states have been experiencing prolonged stay-at-home orders, and schools across the nation have been closed for several weeks. Children are now experiencing potentially life-altering trauma because of the abrupt changes to their daily routines and environments. They are no doubt experiencing very elevated stress levels, which is unique when compared to older living generations.
What causes these genetic material changes?
Epigenetics, in a nutshell, are changes caused by mutations in genes that result in certain proteins becoming altered. These genetic alterations are then passed down through generations.
“According to the USDA, there is a strong connection between hunger and chronic diseases like high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes.”
“Poverty increases the chances of poor health.”
We have known connections to factors such as hunger and poor living conditions to both short- and long-term health hazards. What we are now starting to understand is that those long-term effects may not just be detrimental to our own health, but to our offspring and future generations as well. Epigenetics refers to chemical changes on the DNA strands. The DNA sequence itself is not changed, but chemical tags and histones (which are attached to the DNA) become altered. These tags and histones have to ability to “turn on” or “off” parts of the DNA code. When sections of the DNA code are not in proper working order, it can lead to various poor effects to our health. For example, in one experiment mice who were given certain dietary supplements had epigenetic alterations involving their fur color, weight, and chances of developing cancer (Cooney, Dave, & Wolff, 2002). Sometimes those altered strands of DNA stay altered for the rest of our lifetimes, and some even get passed down to our children.
Changes the expression of DNA coding
Why are these changes significant?
Epigenetics has been linked to neurodegenerative diseases and cancers. Although there has not been much research done yet in the field of epigenetics, scientists are actively studying the human genome and the chemical compounds that affect it. According to NIH (2020), “The chemical compounds of the epigenome are not part of the DNA sequence, but are on or attached to DNA (“epi-” means above in Greek). Epigenetic modifications remain as cells divide and, in some cases, can be inherited through the generations. Environmental influences, such as a person’s diet and exposure to pollutants, can also impact the epigenome.”
Tags the DNA so that certain traits are turned on or off
So, what does it all mean?
Basically, this means that influences from the environment, or a period of extreme stress, can cause our bodies to add tags to our DNA. These tags don’t change the DNA, but they do turn parts of it off making it unusable.
“Conditions including cancers, metabolic disorders, and degenerative disorders have all been found to be related to epigenetic errors.”
Health implications for future generations
Actions performed by today’s society will impact the future. Currently, my 9 and 13-year-old daughters are sitting at the table next to me while I work from home. COVID-19 has us social distancing and isolating at home. The girls are writing in their journals per my request for them to document daily what they did that day and how they are feeling. Only time will tell how significant of an impact this current world event will have on their mental, social, and physical well-being. With epigenetic changes, those effects may also affect their descendants.
Do kids today care about future generations?
I believe they do. Young people nowadays seem especially concerned with saving the planet and to me that says a lot about their concern for the future. According to theconversation.com:
… young people between the ages of 14 and 29 show levels of generative motivation that are as high or even higher than adults. Early generativity is also associated with caring friendships, community involvement and healthy identity development in adolescence and young adulthood. So not only are young people interested and capable of caring for future generations, but doing so is likely good for them.
The present is already being impacted by actions of our ancestors in the past, but this doesn’t mean that we should just accept what’s been done in the past and the epigenetic changes to our current DNA. We should be doing whatever we can today to prevent worse genetic changes for the future, while continuing to research ways to undo the epigenetic damage of the past.
What does this mean for the future of healthcare?
“The causes of poor health for millions globally are rooted in political, social and economic injustices.”
Since epigenetics is the result of factors from life experiences, i.e. socioeconomic factors, this will eventually result with increases in overall health care costs in geographic areas that are socioeconomically impaired. Healthcare systems in those areas may have more patients with poorer health, higher healthcare costs, and more scarcity of healthcare resources. Due to systemic racism, COVID-19 is already beginning to bring the disparities to light. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (2020), “an African American is three times as likely to die from COVID-19 as a white person” in that community, and “African Americans are more likely than whites to die of heart disease, cancer, strokes and diabetes.” If these healthcare disparities already exist, how much worse will it be for future generations since socioeconomic factors increase risk for epigenetic changes?
Tags can be reversible
There are currently studies with drugs for cancer treatment that can reverse abnormal epigenetic patterns thereby “fixing” or “reprogramming” the DNA back to proper function. However, the drugs are still in clinical trials and could potentially be linked to causing other types of cancer. (https://science.sciencemag.org/content/330/6004/576?iss=6004)
What do we do now?
With what we currently know about epigenetics and the potential implications to healthcare for multiple generations into the future, we need to be sure that we are currently providing opportunities to holistically provide for the youth of today. We need to try to close gaps where current disparities exist. We need to provide meals and adequate healthcare coverage to all citizens. Lastly, we need to continue to research and study the genome and all the factors that play into it so that we may someday fully understand and counteract the effects of epigenetics.
Watch this YouTube video to learn MORE about Epigenetics:
Cooney, C.A., Dave, A.A., Wolff, G.L. (August 2002). “Maternal methyl supplements in mice affect epigenetic variation and DNA methylation of offspring”. J. Nurt. 132 (8 Suppl): 2393S-2400S. PMID 12163699.
Epigenetics. (2020, May 9). Retrieved February 10, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epigenetics
Kaiser, J. (2010, October 29). Epigenetic Drugs Take On Cancer. Retrieved February 15, 2020, from https://science.sciencemag.org/content/330/6004/576?iss=6004
Key Facts: Poverty and Poor Health: Health Poverty Action. (n.d.). Retrieved February 10, 2020, from https://www.healthpovertyaction.org/news-events/key-facts-poverty-and-poor-health/
Lawford, H., & Ramey, H. L. (2020, February 23). What we don’t understand about young people’s motivations. Retrieved February 10, 2020, from http://theconversation.com/what-we-dont-understand-about-young-peoples-motivations-129058
Mental Health and Coping During COVID-19. (2020, April 30). Retrieved May 2, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/managing-stress-anxiety.html
Riddihough, G., & Zahn, L. M. (2010, October 29). What Is Epigenetics? Retrieved February 20, 2020, from https://science.sciencemag.org/content/330/6004/611
[SciShow]. (2012, January 22). Epigenetics. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/kp1bZEUgqVI
Waite, T. (2019, February 6). 3 Devastating Effects of Hunger on the Body. Retrieved February 10, 2020, from https://www.feedingamerica.org/hunger-blog/3-ways-hunger-affects-your-body
Weinrauch, L., Gerhard-Herman, M., & Mendelson, M. (2018). Epigenetics. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 72(11), 1275-1277.
Weston, B. (2020, April 24). African Americans in Milwaukee are dying from coronavirus at higher rates than white residents. We shouldn’t be surprised by that. Retrieved May 12, 2020, from https://www.jsonline.com/story/news/solutions/2020/04/24/coronavirus-kills-black-milwaukeeans-higher-rates-thats-no-shock-milwaukee-african-american/3006169001/
What is epigenetics? – Genetics Home Reference – NIH. (n.d.). Retrieved February 15, 2020, from https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/primer/howgeneswork/epigenome