DNA Evidence: Effects of Fatherlessness

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Telomeres length loss with DNA and shortening telomere medical concept as a tree with falling leaves on the end caps of a chromosome as a symbol for aging and living a shorter life due to genetic age damage with 3D illustration elements.

By Anne Reedafa, American Family Association, Aug. 25, 2017

A study released July 18 reveals actual differences in the DNA of children who grew up with a father versus those who didn’t. The results coincide with what we already know about God’s perfect plan for the family. Fathers are needed.

At the cellular level, a child’s loss of a father is associated with increased stress. The father’s God-given role as protector and provider creates a sense of security that leads to overall well-being, both physical and mental, for children.

In children who have experienced father loss, the protective caps (telomeres) on the ends of their chromosomes are cut short. Think of the plastic end on the end of a shoelace. These telomeres are believed by scientists to be directly linked to health and life span, as they keep the chromosomes from deteriorating.

When it comes to varying degrees of telomere shortening, several factors weigh in. The type of father loss and certain circumstances following the loss make a difference. And the sex of the child plays a major role. Ethnicity, on the other hand, has no effect on the results of the study.

The study was published in the medical journal Pediatrics and included nearly 5,000 children born between 1998 and 2000 who were participating in the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a federally funded project. A team of Princeton researchers and others interviewed mothers and fathers at the time of the children’s birth and again when the children were ages one, three, five, and nine. The researchers collected DNA samples through their saliva during the last interview.

As a result, they discovered overall that children who grew up without a father in the home for whatever reason experienced 14% telomere shortening. Children whose father had died had 16% shorter telomere than children whose fathers were alive and living with them. The shortening effects are also highly pronounced (10%) when a father is incarcerated before his child turns five.

Eight percent shortening exists in children of divorce or separation. According to researchers, 95% of that shortening is due to income reduction in the child’s home after father loss. Therefore, stable family income following father loss seems to lessen the risks.

This is not particularly surprising since the impact of the father loss is made more immediately evident through the stress created by financial struggles. When the provider and protector is not only gone, but he has also removed a significant portion of his tangible covering, the intensity of trauma is more severe.

The research shows that shortening is particularly present in boys, whose telomeres are 40% more affected by father loss than girls – also not surprising. Boys with father loss have a biological propensity toward anxiety, depression, or pronounced sensitivity to their environment.

Dr. Daniel Notterman of Princeton University who coauthored the study expressed surprise that children’s DNA was so significantly impacted. Elizabeth Blackburn, who shared a Nobel Prize in 2009 for her work with two other researchers on telomeres, expressed a similar sentiment in the book The Telomere Effect, co-written with Elissa Epel:

To an extent that has surprised us and the rest of the scientific community, telomeres do not simply carry out the commands issued by your genetic code. Your telomeres, as it turns out, are listening to you. They absorb the instructions you give them.

As a matter of fact, Blackburn indicated that the length of telomeres could increase with diet, exercise, appropriate sleep, and an overall more peaceful lifestyle. So, while individuals who have experienced fatherlessness can suffer a wide range of traumatic consequences, hope is not beyond reach.

Our ultimate hope is found in a relationship with our Heavenly Father who:

[R]escued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 

For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together (Colossians 1:13-17, NASB).

No invisible, intricate detail is unseen or unchangeable by the Designer of it all.