Yes, Childhood Changes Your DNA—Here’s How

Updated: Sep. 18, 2017

There are things that you can do to make sure your kid's DNA stays in tip-top shape.

childhoodAlena Ozerova/ShutterstockChildhood does a whole lot of molding. Things of routine seem to stick with you from age five to age 50—if you were snapped at by a dog as a child, you might have the tendency to hesitate even when encountering a beloved family pet. If your family always lifted their feet up when you passed over railroad tracks, you probably still stick to that superstition today. Or in terms of anatomy, you may still have a scar from the time you fell off the jungle gym in middle school.

Those experiences affect humans so significantly because childhood is a particularly malleable time of life. But the changes go way deeper than the ones above, way deeper than expected, right down to the human genome, according to Smithsonian. (Another thing that changes your DNA? Drinking coffee.)

Researchers at Northwestern University took a deeper look at the effects which one’s childhood environment has in their very DNA. The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, analyzed health data from 500 children in the Philippines to see exactly how this formative period can prove to rewrite a human’s very genetic code.

“We could have genes in our bodies that might lead to some bad outcomes or adverse health outcomes, says Thom McDade, the lead author of the study, “ but if those genes are silent, if they’re turned off due to epigenetic processes, that can be a good thing.”

The research specifically focused in on inflammatory proteins and how they changed over time through the process of methylation. Methylation is a process through which DNA is modified through the addition of a methyl group, a hydrocarbon which comes from methane. The children had blood samples taken during childhood and then at age 21 for comparison.

The body’s ability to regulate inflammation rely on these proteins, and with improper regulation, the body becomes far more susceptible to a swatch of age-related ailments, including cardiovascular disease. The child’s psychological, social, microbial, and nutritional environments were taken into account for the study.

Children who grew up in wealthier families and/or who were breastfed were found to have better inflammatory protein regulation as adults.