According to a report this week from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 3.3 million women -- or roughly one in 10 pregnant women -- are at risk for alcohol-exposed pregnancies. These can result in birth defects, developmental issues, miscarriage and fetal alcohol syndrome, a devastating disorder characterized by developmental difficulties and central nervous system problems.
The report's language was widely criticized, misinterpreted as saying that women shouldn't drink unless they're on birth control. It was decried for being sexist, seemingly shaming women for being sexually active and consuming alcohol. But it's worth noting that the guidelines were only directed toward women hoping to get pregnant, not all women of childbearing age.
Consuming any amount of alcohol while pregnant is "just not worth the risk," Cheryl Tan, an epidemiologist at the CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, previously told The Huffington Post.
But perhaps the most gender-biased aspect of the report wasn't what it said about women, but what it didn't say about men. In both the press release for the report and the report itself, the CDC neglected to mention that a father's drinking has also been linked with fetal alcohol syndrome and other developmental issues.
That's right: Men who are looking to have children would almost certainly do well to watch their alcohol consumption, too.
It's become customary for us to place the blame for infertility, difficulty conceiving and fetal health issues on the mother, but mounting research is unequivocally showing that it's not just women who need to be careful.
A groundbreaking study on mice, published in 2013 in the journal Animal Cells and Systems, found that male mice who were exposed to alcohol directly prior to the time of conception were significantly more likely to sire fetuses with abnormal organ or brain development similar to that seen in cases of fetal alcohol syndrome. The male mice who were not exposed to alcohol, however, sired healthy offspring.
The study's authors concluded that a future father's alcohol consumption may alter important genes in sperm that are involved in healthy fetal development.
A 2014 Dutch study also found that even moderate weekly alcohol consumption could lower sperm quality, and seemed to be linked with higher proportions of abnormal sperm.
More broadly, a future father's diet and lifestyle -- including his alcohol consumption -- can play a significant role in a couple's chances of becoming pregnant and the health of their baby. Recent research suggests that role is even larger than often thought. Two studies on mice, published last year in the journal Science, showed that a father's diet can powerfully affect his offspring for better or worse.
And another recent study found a man's pre-conception environment and lifestyle -- including diet, exercise, chemical exposure and alcohol consumption -- to be strongly linked to poor reproductive health and infertility, likely contributing to decreasing birthrates globally.
“I was surprised that we found such poor semen quality among young men ages 20 to 25,” Dr. Niels Skakkebaek of the University of Copenhagen, the lead author of the study, said in a statement. “We found that the average man had more than 90 percent abnormal sperm. ... It appears that we are at a tipping point in industrialized countries where poor semen quality is so widespread that we must suspect that it results in low pregnancy rates.”
Oh, and let's not forget: Men have a biological clock, too, and should probably also be worried about waiting too long to have kids.
The bottom line? If we want to encourage healthier pregnancies and babies, let's stop leaving paternal health out of the picture.
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