Children who lose their fathers—whether to incarceration, divorce, or death—often suffer incredible stress, which has long been understood to impact physical health. Now, a new study suggests the loss of a father may even alter a child’s cellular structure, shortening the protective caps on the ends of their chromosomes known as telomeres and potentially opening the door to chronic illnesses. Still, the somewhat shocking finding is unexpected enough that the researchers behind it are eager to leave their data open to interpretation.
“While we know that disparate stressors—smoking, maltreatment, intense caregiving—are associated with shorter telomeres, the biological link is not well established and is the subject of investigation in several labs,” coauthor on the study Daniel Notterman of Princeton University told Reuters. “It is plausible to consider that children who have stress-induced telomere shortening may be at risk for future health problems, but many other factors play a role in a person’s adult health.”
Telomeres are tricky biologics. One one hand, they appear to reflect cell aging and serve as barometers of overall health—shorter telomeres indicate that cells are nearing death, and studies have linked short telomeres to cardiovascular disease and cancer. On the other hand, it is unclear whether telomeres are a cause of aging and disease, or simply another symptom. Regardless, one would expect stressful situations to have some sort of impact on the telomeres.
And there are few life events more stressful than the loss of a parent. Especially when it comes to sons, losing a father has been linked to depression, binge drinking, and declining physical health. “Practitioners working with aging families should not underestimate the impact of filial bereavement on adult well-being,” a 2009 study on the subject concluded. Yet, the question of whether this sort of stress translates into shorter telomeres had never been addressed.
So Notterman and colleagues measured telomere length and other data collected through the Fragile Families Study, which keeps tabs on 5,000 children with unmarried parents. They found that the loss of a father before age 9 was linked to shorter telomeres across the board, although those whose fathers died had telomeres 16 percent shorter than kids who had lost their dads to divorce or incarceration. The loss of a father had a stronger impact on sons than daughters.
“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 of Cornell University, who was not involved in the study. “The authors are able to provide insight into a direct biological channel through which paternal absence could affect the health of their children.”
Notterman hopes the findings will encourage officials to create forums for incarcerated fathers to keep in touch with their kids. “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 said in a statement.
“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.”