Research tells us that father loss is linked to a broad range of negative outcomes for children, including lower rates of high school and college graduation, a higher risk of delinquency, early sexual activity, teen pregnancy, and poor mental, physical, and emotional health. Yet despite the emerging science of fatherhood, in many ways, we are only beginning to understand the significance of the biological father connection to child well-being. New research indicates that the repercussions of losing a biological father—whether to death, divorce, or incarceration—go even deeper, affecting children at the cellular level.
Notterman explains these new findings in an interview with IFS:
Telomere length (TL) has been shown in many studies to be associated with chronic stress of diverse origins in both children and adults. We reasoned that separation or loss of a father would be a significantly stressful event in the life of a young child. If that were the case, we hypothesized that father loss would be associated with telomere attrition, and that turned out to be the case. We know that chronic stress is also associated with long-term adverse effects on health, including cardiovascular and behavioral health. Whether accelerated telomere attrition is just a biomarker of these subsequent health effects, or actually plays a causal role in producing these effects is not known at present, but it is the subject of intense laboratory and clinical study. In either case, by examining telomere length, we get an early window (by age 9 years in our study) into adverse health effects that may not be realized for many years.
…Father loss was conceptualized as being of one of three types: separation of the biologic father from the child’s mother, often due to the dissolution of their relationship; incarceration of the child’s father; and death of the father before the child was 9 years of age. In addition to the associations noted in the question, we also found evidence of genetic moderation. Due to the presence of specific gene variants (called, “alleles”) in a gene called “SERT,” which is known to affect how the brain processes serotonin, a key neurotransmitter, some children seem to be more sensitive to environmental stimuli such as loss of a parent. In our study, children bearing a sensitizing allele, or variant, or SERT are much more susceptible to telomere shortening. Thus, the magnitude of telomere shortening is affected not only by the loss of a father but also by the genetic endowment received from the parents.
The death of a father is “a more potent stress because it completely ends the relationship between father and child. With separation and incarceration, it is still possible for there to be contact between father and child. Fathers who are separated from the family often maintain contact with a biological child, and incarceration may be limited in time.” And while the effects of father loss were greater for boys than girls (possibly due to fahters providing “specific role-modeling to sons”), the “study was not specifically designed to answer this question.”
Income associated with the father is a major player in one form of father loss, but less in others:
We found that father loss due to the dissolution of the relationship with the child’s mother affects telomere length mainly by reducing family income. We conjecture that this is due to the stress engendered by material hardship (worsening poverty). Father loss due to incarceration or death seems to be a much more potent stress, such that the additional contribution of income loss is relatively small.
We think that our findings reinforce the growing understanding of a father’s importance in the life of his children. We do not think that our data support a conclusion that one type of relationship between a child’s parents is more favorable than another; rather, we conclude that a central role for the father is optimal for his child’s well-being. Furthermore, we think that this knowledge should inform public policy in providing support to families and children where the father, for one reason or another, is absent from his children.