It is no surprise that losing one’s father has many negative consequences for children. Whether divorce, incarceration, or death is the cause, it can result in emotional, behavioral and physical problems that can be observed but have not been evaluated on a biological level. New research reported in the journal Pediatrics aims to address that; scientists found evidence that losing a father can cause a shortening of telomeres, the caps that protect the ends of chromosomes.
It is thought that telomeres are related to health and cellular aging. Every time a cell divides, its telomeres get a little shorter, and cells will cease dividing after they get too short. Research has suggested that shortened telomeres are linked to diseases like cancer. Now, this work has indicated that at age nine, children who had lost their father had 14 percent shorter telomeres on average compared to children who still had their father.
The corresponding author of the work, pediatrician Daniel Notterman of Princeton University and his team, analyzed data gathered in the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study. The Princeton and Columbia University-based effort has physical, mental and cultural data on around 5,000 children born in major cities in the United States around the turn of the last century.
The investigators took various types of loss into account: separation or divorce, incarceration, and death, as well as when it occurred. Other pressures on telomere length were also considered, using data collected by interviews with mothers when children were one, three, five and nine years old.
It was found that any loss happening between birth and nine years causes a telomere length reduction in children. The effect was most pronounced for kids whose dads had died, in which telomeres were able 16 percent shorter. "The father is being removed from the life of the child and that is plausibly associated with an increase in stress, for both economic and emotional reasons," explained Notterman, a Professor of Molecular Biology.
Learn more about telomeres and human disease from this video featuring Dr. Titia de Lange, Director of the Anderson Center for Cancer Research at Rockefeller University.
While race and ethnicity did not play any role, this effect seemed to be worse for boys than for girls, and especially for boys who lost their father before age five. Most strikingly, said Notterman, was that this phenomenon is influenced by genetic variants of the serotonin transporter system. When a child carried a less reactive variant, there was a 90 percent reduction in the effect seen in children with the most reactive variants. Therefore, a child’s genotype could be protecting them from this type of cellular stress.
This work has implications for public policy if considered. "The fact that there is an actual measurable biological outcome that is related to the absence of a father makes more credible the urgency of public policy efforts to maintain contact between children and fathers," Notterman stressed. "If you understand that, for example, punishing a father by incarceration may have an indelible effect not only on the psyche and development of the child, but also on the ability of the child's chromosomes to maintain their integrity, then perhaps you had better understand the importance of measures to mitigate the effects of incarceration" such as educational or psychological help for children, according to Notterman.
"The importance of these findings for research on the social sources of health -- and health disparities -- in the United States can hardly be overstated," noted Christopher Wildeman, an Associate Professor of Policy Analysis and Management in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University. Wildeman is aware of this study but did not have a role.
"By showing that three causes of paternal absence decrease telomere length, a core biological indicator of health, the authors are able to provide insight into a direct biological channel through which paternal absence could affect the health of their children," Wildeman continued. "Moreover, because each of these causes of paternal absence [is] unequally distributed in the population, these findings have important implications for how we think about health disparities in the United States."
"We all know that resources are limited and are becoming more limited," Notterman said. "But by understanding that a social and familial phenomenon -- the loss of a father -- has biological effects which are plausibly linked with the future well-being of a child, we now have a rationale for prioritizing resource allocations to the children who are most vulnerable."