Posted on Jul 21, 2017, 10 a.m.
Princeton researchers report that the loss of a father as a child has a significant adverse effect on telomeres.
The lack of a father figure in one's life causes negative behavioral and physical consequences as a child grows. Plenty of families lack father figures for various reasons such as divorce, incarceration, death and so on. Yet not much is understood about the biological processes responsible for the connection between the loss of a father and diminished child well-being. This connection was recently confirmed in a study performed by researchers at Princeton University. The results of this study were published July 18 in Pediatrics.
About the Study
Telomeres are believed to be an indicator of cell aging and overall health. Their role is to assist in the maintenance of the DNA caps of chromosomes following cell division. Each time a cell divides, its telomeres shorten as a result. Once telomeres are too short, cell replication stops. Previous studies have suggested that shortened telomeres are associated with a broad range of diseases in adults, including cardiovascular disease and cancer.
The researchers determined that the loss of a father produces negative effects on the child's telomeres. The study determined that children who lost their father had dramatically shortened telomeres by nine years of age. Their telomeres were an average of 14 percent shorter than those of children who did not lose their father. The most significant impact occurred in instances where the father perished. It is interesting to note the effects were heightened for boys.
The research team measured the length of telomeres and studied data gathered through a study referred to as Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing. This study followed about 5,000 youngsters born in populous United States cities around the year 2000. Information regarding the children's mental, physical, social and cognitive skills/functionality along with living conditions and family financial resources was gathered. The purpose of using this study was to glean insight as to the extent that telomere length was impacted by losing one's father.
The research team also studied whether the manner in which the father was lost played a role in the magnitude of the negative effects. Even the timing of the loss was analyzed. The research team also interviewed mothers at various intervals following birth to determine if additional factors like income might have played a role in the offsprings' telomere length.
It was determined losing one's father is tied to cellular function as estimated by the length of telomeres. The loss of one's father between birth and 9 years of age resulted in a decrease in telomere length. The effect is especially high for offspring whose fathers perished (16% shorter telomere length). The research team believes the loss of a father causes significant stress due to reduced income and the devastating emotional impact.
There is no evidence that the link between child well-being and telomere length differs based on ethnicity or race. Boys were more negatively impacted by the loss of their father. This association proved the strongest for boys who were disconnected from their fathers before turning 5 years-old.
The Most Surprising Finding
The research team determined the effect of losing one's father on his telomere length was mediated through specific alleles. These are genetic variants within the serotonin transporter systems of cells. The effects of losing a father are 90% less for those who have the least reactive alleles. This means each child's unique genotype has the potential to lessen the association between his social environment and his telomere length and even function as a form of protection.
Why the Results Matter
These findings are important as they have the potential to impact public policy. The loss of a father produces a measurable biological result. This finding bolsters the need for public policy efforts to sustain contact between youngsters and fathers. As an example, punishing a father with lengthy incarceration will have a lasting effect on the well-being of his child, including his telomeres. This means children with incarcerated fathers might be provided with easier access to certain psychological and educational initiatives as time progresses.
Colter Mitchell, Sara McLanahan, Lisa Schneper, Irv Garfinkel, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Daniel Notterman. Father Loss and Child Telomere Length. Pediatrics, 2017; e20163245 DOI: 10.1542/peds.2016-3245