When a father is not physically present in a child’s life — due to death, divorce, incarceration or another reason — the child is more likely to have shorter telomeres, a part of human DNA that’s linked to stress and disease.
In the groundbreaking new study, researchers from the University of Princeton found that, at age 9, children who were in a fatherless situation had telomeres that were 14 percent shorter on average than other children whose fathers were not absent.
Telomeres, which mark the end point of a chromosome, “are thought to reflect cell aging and overall health,” report the researchers. The main job of telomeres is to protect DNA after a cell divides. Other studies have implicated shortened telomeres with heart disease and cancer.
To gain their findings, the Princeton researchers analyzed a group of about 5,000 children whose health and social status have been under observation for more than a dozen years. While they found that the absence of a father was linked to shorter telomeres no matter the cause, the most significant impact appears to occur in situations where the father has died. In that case, telomere length was 16 percent shorter on average.
The researchers surmise that financial hardship and emotional duress may be contributing to the children’s stress marks in their DNA.
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“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,” said Notterman, a senior research scholar and lecturer with the rank of professor of Molecular Biology.
The researchers discovered that the biggest adverse impact occurred among boys who lost their fathers before the age of 5. Overall, the impact on boys appears to be of a larger magnitude than on girls.
The study holds wide implications for public policy, notes Notterman.
“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,” he said.
Such social policy, such as high incarceration rates, would inevitably come into scope given the short-term negative impact that an absent father has on a child.
“The importance of these findings for research on the social sources of health — and health disparities — in the United States can hardly be overstated,” said Christopher Wildeman, an associate professor of Policy Analysis and Management in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University and the co-director of the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect.
“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 added.
Notterman also hopes that the study gives public policy experts more insight into challenging and complex life situations faced by many children throughout 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.”
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.