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    Loss of a father is associated with impaired cellular function

    The link between a child’s losing a father and poor health is well documented. Now a new study shines a light on the biologic factors that may underlie this association. Compared with other children, it found, those who have lost their fathers, whether through death, incarceration, or separation/divorce, have significantly shorter telomeres, a condition that is associated with chronic stress.

    Investigators analyzed data from a large birth cohort study (2420 children) representing a wide range of family types and many low-income families. Interviews were conducted with parents soon after their children’s birth and when the children were aged 1, 3, 5, and 9 years. Researchers collected salivary DNA samples from some of the children at the age of 9 years to measure telomere length (TL).

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    The TLs of children who had lost a father were 14% shorter than those of other children. The shortening effect was greatest with paternal death (16% shorter), followed by incarceration (10%), and separation/divorce (6%). The association of father loss with shorter TL was more pronounced among boys than girls and among children with serotonin transporter alleles that enhance stress sensitivity.

    The child’s age when he or she “lost” a father did not affect how much the TL was shortened. An examination of other factors that might mediate the association between paternal loss and shortened TLs found that income loss explains most of the association with regard to separation/divorce, but much less of its association with incarceration or death (Mitchell C, et al. Pediatrics. 2017;140[2]:e20163245).

    Thoughts from Dr. Burke

    For those of us who are a long way from our most recent class in genetics, telomeres are repetitive sequences of DNA found at the ends of chromosomes. With each cell replication, telomeres shorten, eventually leading to a state when a cell no longer divides. Several studies of telomere length indicate that this molecular measure is changed by all sorts of environmental and social determinants of health. It seems that nature and nurture, genetics and environment, may be more closely linked than once thought. 

    Marian Freedman
    Marian Freedman is a freelance writer.


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