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Study Finds Losing a Father May Change a Child's DNA

New research suggests that not having a dad in the house may have measurable effects on children at the molecular level.

Loss of Father Drawing Lapina/Shutterstock

The health and longevity of children who grow up without a father may suffer, according to a new study.

Researchers examined the DNA of 2,420 children from 20 U.S. cities in order to determine whether not having a dad in the home—due to separation and/or divorce, death, or incarceration—was associated with cellular function as estimated by telomere length. Why telomeres? Because scientists view them as a biological clock of sorts, since their length helps to determine when cells in our bodies die. Shortened telomeres have been associated with a bunch of health conditions like obesity and mental illness, which makes the results of this study pretty troubling—especially for boys, whose telomeres were 40 percent more affected than girls' by the loss of their father.

While the effect of not having a dad around was most pronounced in kids younger than 5, the 9-year-olds who suffered father loss had telomeres that were 14 percent shorter than those who had not. When additionally broken down by the reason for the loss, the effect was greatest in kids whose fathers had died (16 percent), followed by kids with dads in jail (10 percent) and those whose parents were divorced or separated (6 percent).

Maintaining a stable family income did appear to help matters a little—particularly in homes of children whose parents were divorced or separated—since much of the problem (95 percent!) seems to be related to loss of income.

The big takeaway, according to the researchers, is that the findings underscore the important role fathers play in the care and development of children, and adds to evidence showing the harmful effects a parent's jail time has on children.

Study author Dan Notterman, a pediatrician and senior research scholar and lecturer at Princeton University, told Parents.com that the findings underscore the important role fathers play in their kid's lives, and add to evidence showing the harmful effects a parent's jail time has on their family. "Fathers play an essential role in the development of their children," he explained. "Public policy needs to be adjusted so that these very vulnerable children are a priority for community support."

Hollee Actman Becker is a freelance writer, blogger, and mom of two who writes about parenting and pop culture. Check out her website holleeactmanbecker.com for more, and then follow her on Instagram.