SALT LAKE CITY — Children who grow up without a father in the home have shorter telomeres, the protective chromosome caps that are believed to affect health and longevity, a new study says.
The findings are particularly troublesome for boys, whose telomeres were 40 percent more affected than girls’ by the loss of their father.
The effect of father loss was most pronounced in children whose fathers died or were incarcerated before they turned 5, according to the study, published Tuesday in the medical journal Pediatrics. Nine-year-olds whose fathers are dead had a 16 percent reduction in telomere length, compared to children whose fathers are alive and living with their children.
Amid the bad news was a glimmer of good: The researchers found that a stable family income appears to mitigate the risk, most significantly for children of divorce. Income loss in the child’s home after a divorce or separation accounts for 95 percent of telomere shortening, the study’s authors said.
But shortened telomeres, which are seen by scientists as a kind of biological clock, are associated with a range of health conditions including obesity and mental illness. Some researchers believe shorter chromosome caps age us prematurely. A noticeable decline in telomere length among children who live without their fathers adds to evidence that shows the family structure matters not only in childhood, but throughout life.
The research “underscores the important role of fathers in the care and development of children and supplements evidence of the strong negative effects of parental incarceration,” the authors said.
The specifics of the study
The children studied were among nearly 5,000 born between 1998 and 2000 who are part of the federally funded Fragile Families and…