Skip to Main Content
Skip Nav Destination

Fathers and Children – A Critical Linkage :

July 19, 2017

The authors cast a wide net in their research. Given the in-depth interviews conducted for the FFWCS at 2 days postpartum and at child ages 1, 3, 5 and 9 years, the authors are able to control for an extraordinarily detailed and broad range of potentially confounding variables, including whether parents discussed an abortion, and presence of parental depression, alcoholism, intimate partner violence and living situation.

In a recently released article in Pediatrics (10.1542/peds.2016-3245), Dr. Colter Mitchell and colleagues examine data from the “Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study” and share enormously important research that associates shortened telomere length at age 9 years with worsened child health due to father loss. Telomeres are repeating DNA sequences at the ends of chromosomes, and in mature somatic cells, telomere length decreases with age, providing a biological clock proxy measure. Telomere shortening has been associated with a wide range of personal, social and environmental stressors, and telomere length has been negatively correlated with adverse factors including poverty, mental illness, family instability and adult health outcomes. The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS) includes a birth cohort of 2,420 children from 20 large American cities, oversampled to include representation of children born to unmarried parents, and offers a remarkable opportunity to examine hypotheses related to specific family, environmental and child stressors, and father loss.

I found this paper especially meaningful and important for many reasons.  I practice in an inner-city setting, in which father loss and absence are striking.  As a clinician I particularly value the role of the father in the family, not just as a financial provider, but as a co-parent, a supporter of breastfeeding, and as an advocate for his children. This paper is unique in offering us biological clues about the underpinnings of this relationship that further support the view that fathers are critical to families and children.

The authors cast a wide net in their research. Given the in-depth interviews conducted for the FFWCS at 2 days postpartum and at child ages 1, 3, 5 and 9 years, the authors are able to control for an extraordinarily detailed and broad range of potentially confounding variables,  including whether parents discussed an abortion, and presence of parental depression, alcoholism, intimate partner violence and living situation. Additionally, 3 genetic variants of the dopaminergic system and 2 variants of the serotonin transporter system, which are hypothesized to characterize mental-emotional reactivity, were measured. Father loss was carefully categorized into death, incarceration or divorce/separation; associated income loss was quantified.  Finally, salivary DNA at age 9 years was used for the telomere length assessment, and for those with interest, the measurement is carefully explained.

In this study, father loss was clearly and significantly associated with telomere shortening. Many of the results are consistent with prior research, but several new findings create potential avenues for new research.  For example, would you think that boys or girls would be more affected by father loss? Would you expect that death or incarceration or separation/divorce would be more impactful for telomere length? Finally (and I will give this one away), in this study only about 25% of the association between father loss and negative child outcome could be attributed to parental income loss, while prior researchers have found a much higher proportion attributable (50%) to income. In summary, this unique translational study takes us from bench to bedside to community – quite an achievement.

Close Modal

or Create an Account

Close Modal
Close Modal