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Epigenetics is oppressive to women?

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From Real Clear Science, Timely warning re the latest hot weather news:

Epigenetics is the next big field that the media, fearmongers, and political hacks will attempt to exploit. How do we know? Because there is a flurry of research in the field (which is not always a good sign), and journalists are already hacking away. You can find articles blaming epigenetics for obesity, cancer, personality, homosexuality, and (absurdly) how we vote.

Never mind the fact that there is serious reason to believe epigenetic changes are temporary and may not be passed down to multiple generations, particularly among mammals.

The authors worry, perhaps rightly so, that the media hype surrounding epigenetics will once again turn its focus on mothers. Will the government once again regulate what pregnant women can eat, drink, and do? And if so, why not regulate the behavior of men, as well? Epigenetics, after all, can affect sperm quality.

Aw, probably nada. The Big Gulp episode in New York may well have warned most lawmakers off all that stuff.

First, “public health” isn’t “personal health.” It’s one thing for a government to close down beaches when the water’s coliform [harmful bacteria] content exceeds safe levels; another when it’s telling us all that we are not allowed to have cream in our coffee because some people have high blood pressure.

Meanwhile, what to believe? The authors mentioned above are featured in Nature Opinion: “Society: Don’t blame the mothers – Careless discussion of epigenetic research on how early life affects health across generations could harm women, warn Sarah S. Richardson and colleagues.

They offer some fairly sensible, sourced, (and free) opinions:

A 2013 story on the health-information website WebMD demonstrates the sort of responsible reporting that we would like to see more of (see go.nature.com/p2krhs). The story reported findings of a four-fold increased risk of bipolar disorder in adult offspring if a mother had influenza during pregnancy6, but it emphasized that the overall risk observed was small and that bipolar disorder is treatable. It stated that the study considered only one of many possible risk factors and did not establish cause and effect. Furthermore, the headline did not lead with the scary number.

Much less context was given in coverage of a 2012 paper7 showing that second-generation offspring of rats eating a high-fat diet during pregnancy had an 80% chance of cancer, compared with 50% of control rats. ‘Why you should worry about grandma’s eating habits’, read one headline. “Think twice about that bag of potato chips because you are eating for more than two,” warned another story. These articles did not state that the rats were bred for high cancer rates. Nor did they include inconsistent results: third-generation offspring of female rats on high-fat diets actually had lower incidences of tumours than their control peers.

Inadequately supported and poorly contextualized statements are also found in well-intentioned educational materials. …

Some thoughts:

It’s a very new field. There are bound to be inconsistent results, no matter what. Think of the centenarian who announces that he lived to be 100 by smoking half a pack a day for most of a century. But that fact doesn’t make the practice good public health advice—or say anything about how his behaviour might have affected his children or grandchildren, or anyone else.

Here’s one way of thinking about it: Some see genes as somewhat like marbles. You have ten red marbles and three blue ones when you are born. That other person has nine red marbles and four blue ones.

So that tells us everything we need to know about what will happen?

Epigenetics sees genes as more like cells than marbles. They are alive. The resulting information may or may not get passed on. It could be passed on to a number of generations, but we simply do not know at this point.

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