Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance — or epigenetics, for short — doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Yet this idea that environmental factors (such as diet, lifestyle choices and behaviors, and stress) can change the health not only of the people who are exposed to them, but also the health of their descendants, is something we’ll be hearing more and more about.
Epigenetic experts believe that the environmental conditions and life experiences of parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents can, in a way, flip “on/off switches” on the genes in their eggs and sperm, or the genes of developing fetuses in pregnant women, thus changing the genetic code of their offspring and descendants. In this way, new genetic traits can appear in a single generation, and be passed on to kids, grandkids, and beyond.
For instance, evidence suggests that smoking and overeating can affect genes, causing those affecting obesity to become “switched on” and those carrying messages for longevity to become “switched off.” That means that in addition to the self-harm that can come from eating too much or smoking, these lifestyle choices may predispose a person’s offspring (and even future descendants) to disease and premature death.